Thursday, April 19, 2018

War Horses

British gun team, New York Tribune, c.1918
World War I was a modern industrial war, the first global war to use airplanes, tanks, and machine guns. And so it is easy to forget the vital role that horses played in the Great War.  An estimated sixteen million horses were used on all fronts, while eight million died in service.* Horses were vitally important to military transportation, carrying men, food, supplies, artillery, and heavy guns to the front lines.  Where motorized vehicles were unable to travel, horses found a way: over roads blasted with shell holes, across rivers and flooded streams, up steep embankments, through deep mud, and along stretches of ground where no roads existed. Horses made a major contribution to the Allied victory; due to the naval blockade, Germans were less able to replace their animals lost in action, and the German army “did not attempt to cure or destroy their wounded horses, which were often acquired by Allied troops.  Some historians even hypothesize that if the German equine force had been strengthened with professional veterinary services, they might have been able to defeat the British and French.”**

Illustration by Fortunino Matania for The Sphere
As Michael Morpurgo has vividly portrayed in his novel War Horse, horses suffered terribly in the First World War.  They were targeted by enemy machine guns and shell fire; they collapsed and drowned in mud and shell holes; thousands died of exposure; they were driven past the point of exhaustion and often went without adequate food and water—so hungry that they ate blankets and uniforms.***

Gilbert Frankau was a British officer in the Royal Field Artillery. His poem “Gun Teams” was published in his collection A Song of the Guns, written under what he described as “the most remarkable conditions… at the battle of Loos, and during a lull in the fighting” and completed after his artillery brigade was ordered to Ypres, “within sight of the ruined tower of Ypres Cathedral.”† As an artillery officer, Frankau worked closely with the horses he describes in his poem, the six-to-twelve horse teams required to pull heavy field artillery to the battlefront. 


WWI postcard by C.T. Howard
Their rugs are sodden, their heads are down, their tails are turned to the storm.
(Would you know them, you that groomed them in the sleek fat days of peace,—
When the tiles rang to their pawings in the lighted stalls, and warm, —
Now the foul clay cakes on breeching-strap and clogs the quick-release?)

The blown rain stings, there is never a star, the tracks are rivers of slime.
(You must harness up by guesswork with a failing torch for light,
Instep-deep in unmade standings; for it’s active-service time,
And our resting weeks are over, and we move the guns to-night.)

The iron tires slither, the traces sag; their blind hooves stumble and slide;
They are war-worn, they are weary, soaked with sweat and sopped with rain.
(You must hold them, you must help them, swing your lead and centre wide
Where the greasy granite pavé peters out to squelching drain.)

There is shrapnel bursting a mile in front on the road that the guns must take:
(You are nervous, you are thoughtful, you are shifting in your seat,
As you watch the ragged feathers flicker orange flame and break) —
But the teams are pulling steady down the battered village street.

You have shod them cold, and their coats are long, and their bellies gray with the mud;
They have done with gloss and polish, but the fighting heart’s unbroken.
We, who saw them hobbling after us down white roads flecked with blood,
Patient, wondering why we left them, till we lost them in the smoke;

Who have felt them shiver between our knees, when the shells rain black from the skies,
When the bursting terrors find us and the lines stampede as one;
Who have watched the pierced limbs quiver and the pain in stricken eyes;
Know the worth of humble servants, foolish-faithful to their gun!
            —Gilbert Frankau

Fortunino Matania
A memorial to First World War horses in Hampstead’s church of St. Jude-on-the-Hill is inscribed, “Most obediently and often most painfully they died—faithful unto death. Not one of them is forgotten before God.”††  Another poignant image of the bond between horses and the soldiers who served with them is the painting by Fortunino Matania, “Good-bye Old Man,” reproduced and used by charities to raise funds for animals serving in the war. The illustration is often associated with Henry Chappell’s poem “A Soldier’s Kiss,” which depicts a soldier’s farewell to his faithful companion:
Only a dying horse! He swiftly kneels,
Lifts the limp head and hears the shivering sigh
Kisses his friend while down his cheek there steals
Sweet Pity’s tear; “goodbye old man, goodbye."°
------------------------------------------------------------------------Ernest Harold Baynes, Animal Heroes of the Great War, Macmillan Company, 1927, p. 22 and
Dion Dassanayake, “Never Forget: Incredible tribute to the 8 million hero horses killed in First World War,” Express, 28 Oct. 2015,, Accessed 18 Apr. 2018.
** Elizabeth D. Schafer, “Veterinary Medicine,” The European Powers in the First World War: An Encyclopedia, edited by Spencer C. Tucker, Routledge, 2013, p. 723.
*** Elizabeth D. Schafer, “Animals, Use of,” The European Powers in the First World War: An Encyclopedia, edited by Spencer C. Tucker, Routledge, 2013, p. 53.
† Gilbert Frankau, author’s “Note,” A Song of the Guns, Houghton Mifflin, 1916, no page.
†† “The War Horse Memorial,” St. Jude-on-the-Hill,, Accessed 18 Apr. 2018.
° Henry Chappell, “The Soldier’s Kiss,” Our Dumb Animals, vol. 49, no. 5, Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, October 1916, p. 76. 


  1. Touching tribute. Millions of donkeys and mules were also innocent victims of the war.

    1. Thanks for reading, Anita, and for reminding us of the sacrifice of the donkeys and mules.

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