Steven Spielberg’s epic “War Horse” has thrown the spotlight on the military service of horses. Marcus Wilson spent a year researching the role of New Zealand horses who served in overseas conflicts. The story he unearthed is harrowing.
They numbered 18,000 in all, horses that had known nothing but the lush, rolling pastures of New Zealand.
They were shipped half a world away for two conflicts in lands so foreign to their own.
Some did not survive the arduous sea journey. Many pressed into military service succumbed to disease, others to the wounds of battles.
They survived on limited rations and, like the men who rode them, became battle-weary and tired as the brutal campaigns of the Anglo-Boer conflict in southern Africa, and World War 1 across the deserts of northern Africa and beyond, unfolded.
In the end, just one New Zealand horse ever made it home.
Kiwi soldiers serving in World War 1 saw the brutal way in which local horses were pressed into labour on farms. Many believed a quick and painless death for their loyal mounts was the best option.
And so the men who had shared years of conflict, who with their horses had witnessed carnage and faced hardship together, said their farewells to their mounts.
Some found homes with kind locals, but many of the battle-worn animals were dispatched with a shot to the head.
Colonel Charles Reakes wrote at the time that New Zealand troops in Eqypt were determined in their decisions.
“Before the home-coming from Egypt,” he wrote, “there was many a sad parting between man and horse – mates in the hard years of war.
“The ill-usage of some horses that had been sold to callous Egyptians had convinced the New Zealanders that a merciful death was a better fate for a faithful horse than bondage to a pitiless taskmaster, and numbers, for which kind owners were not available, were given a painless death.”
Lieutenant Briscoe Moore, remarking on the shooting of horses at the end of the campaign, wrote: “This was a sad, but nevertheless humane ending of the lives of those faithful animals which had done such good work and been such trusty servants of their devoted masters.”
It was not the kind of ending anyone would have wished for, noted Marcus Wilson, who spent 12 months researching the role of New Zealand’s military horse for a 270-page thesis he completed in 2007.
“Whether shot or sold, the close to the war effort of New Zealand’s military horses was not befitting the loyal and courageous efforts tirelessly fulfilled throughout both wars,” Wilson said.
“It would have been a satisfying and romantic conclusion to the horse’s story if each surviving mount had lived its final days feeding on the green grass of home.
However, the realities of war meant that, of the 18,000 horses sent from New Zealand to both conflicts, only four are believed to have returned home.
The best-known among them was Bess. She was the mount of Colonel Guy Powles and returned from service in World War 1.
Wilson was struck by the stark contrast that confronted by New Zealand horses pressed into military service.
“Imagine if you will, being a horse in New Zealand previous to the two wars,” he said. “Living life on expansive farms covered in ample amounts of lush grass.
“A daily routine could include some tough farm-work but on the whole, a day was made up of a maximum of a few hours riding, followed by hours of rest, green feed and a seemingly endless supply of fresh water.
“This idyllic lifestyle was familiar and there were few variations to regular routine until unexpectedly, the environment changes to a mobilisation camp, surrounded by hundreds of horses, all removed from their own familiar environments.
“For these horses, life would be forever different,” Wilson said.
“From this point onwards, all that was familiar was to be a memory. Climate would change, work would increase, food would be rationed and illness would be common. This was the beginning of military service.”
Wilson said the New Zealand horses who served faced great hardship and toiled to the limit of their physical abilities alongside soldiers.
“For a soldier to work this hard, he would be weighed down with medals awarded for gallantry. Yet these horses received nothing.
“The conditions endured were inhospitable at best, making the experience of the horse quite undeserved for animals which proved themselves so noble.
“They experienced heat and cold, distance and demand, abnormality and stress, hunger and exhaustion, disease and death.
“Yet, with unquestionable willingness and patience, the horses of these two wars worked through merciless conditions and faithfully yielded their last traces of energy to honour the duty placed upon them,” he said.
Wilson said that, through no fault of the New Zealand authorities, mobilisation of the nation’s mounted expeditionary forces was hurried.
Horses were collected enmasse for service in distant African environments and were expected to become accustomed to an entirely unfamiliar lifestyle in a matter of months.
“Consequently, during the Anglo-Boer War, thousands of fresh horses were sent to war and expected to increase their workload on reduced, unfamiliar food rations in a seasonally opposite climate,” he said. “Had British military authorities paid proper attention to remount experts at the time, South African-bred horses would have been used in the early stages of the war, allowing ample time for foreign horses to be weaned onto reduced rations and heavier workloads before embarking on the tough sea journey.
“The shock of hurried mobilisation in 1899 and 1900 effectively started the campaign on the back foot,” Wilson said.
Had it been better organised, the horses would have been far better prepared for military service, he added.
Mobilisation for World War 1 was initially little different to that of 15 years earlier for the Anglo-Boer war, he said.
The expeditionary force received earlier notice from the British War Office but still struggled to equip sufficient numbers of appropriate military horses.
“These horses were sent to Egypt in quick time and only due to circumstances of military operations – Gallipoli – were they given sufficient time to become accustomed to military life.”
Transportation by sea was traumatic for the animals, Wilson said.
Hundreds of animals were herded on to multi-decked ships and sent for weeks at sea, destined for a completely alien environment. They suffered in cramped conditions, heavy humidity and constant pitching and rolling from the ships.
The horses survived on small amounts of grain and the wooden decks became slippery with faeces.
Wilson said transportation did not directly produce large numbers of deaths onboard ships, but it took a devastating toll on the condition of previously healthy animals.
Through inactivity, exhaustion, starvation, dehydration and disease, they disembarked at their destination completely unfit for military action.
Transportation conditions were deplorable during the Anglo-Boer War, but saw slight improvement by World War 1, he said, mainly around ventilation.
As a result, horses survived the journey through the tropics far better and arrived in Egypt in decidedly better condition than at South Africa, he said.
Despite this, fundamental errors were still made where lessons from the Anglo-Boer experience should have been learnt.
“Overcrowding, hunger, dehydration, exhaustion and inactivity remained serious issues for condition loss aboard ship,” he said.
“Efforts were made to keep animals fit on the journey, but more care was required to ensure that deterioration was kept to a minimum and that animals disembarked in the best condition possible.”
Had transport shortcomings been fixed, the experience would have been much better for the horses, he said.
The New Zealand animals arriving in southern Africa were unfit for even the lightest workload, let alone military action.
Despite numerous calls from veterinary officials and unit commanders seeking time to allow horses to acclimatise, military authorities threw all animals into the field straight away.
“The war effort, which could not afford to waste valuable weeks, could apparently afford to destroy its own mounted forces through prompt action,” Wilson said.
“Here too, the decision not to use Cape-bred horses for the first months of war, and therefore allow all imported horses sufficient time to acclimatise to climate, food, water and work, had tragic consequences for the entire military campaign.
“The British-led force was never able to amend the condition of their mounts and subsequently fought a three-year war with an inadequately conditioned force.”
Wilson said predictions of a swift victory may well have been fulfilled had the force been immediately fit for service.
Lessons of acclimatisation were a major talking point post-war, he said – “so much so, that proper acclimatisation was made a priority for mounted operations in World War 1.”
The desert corps had the convenience of the Dardanelles campaign to allow close to two years for acclimatisation in Egypt.
“Here, British authorities were fortunate; if the mounted force had been required immediately upon arrival, the state of the horses throughout the campaign could have mirrored the Anglo-Boer War.
“Without the rest period available because of infantry commitments in the Dardanelles, the horses would have been ill-prepared for war.”
The results of effective acclimatisation were obvious, Wilson said. “Their mounts were in fine condition and were able to perform to their potential from the outset.”
Military commanders, it seemed, had trouble adapting to modern warfare, particularly over the continued use of cavalry rather than complete mounted infantry forces.
“Modern technology in warfare simply had advanced too far to make cavalry charges a viable offensive option,” Wilson said.
“As a result of failure to make any true amendments to strategy and organisation in the First World War, thousands of horses died from those same causes which were so obviously detrimental in the Anglo-Boer War.
“By the end of World War 1, technological advancement had made shock tactics redundant and the horse’s traditional military role was coming to an end.”
That said, the speed, endurance, reliability, adaptability and manoeuvrability of the horse was unmatched by any other means until after the war. “The horse was the most feasible way to manoeuvre troops at speed and also the most reliable form of swift supply transport.”
The varied roles of horses meant they remained essential to the war effort, even given the rapidly advancing techniques of modern warfare. “Sizeable military operations without the horse would have been quite impossible,” he said.
“Despite the pressures placed upon the animals, they were unrelenting in their assistance.
“Short of complete physical breakdown, these horses would repeatedly work beyond their limits; the fact that they were forced to do so highlights a concern with military infrastructure.
“It was the care of the horses which came into question throughout both wars.
“Troops from different countries and backgrounds had different levels of horse knowledge, which led to criticism of some units who failed to properly care for their mounts.
“The fact that troops from some countries had less skill with animals than others is irrefutable; however, the accountability for this should lie with the military infrastructure rather than the troops themselves.
“Poor horsemastership led directly or indirectly to thousands of horse deaths. A soldier’s inability to recognise an ill or overworked horse and the lack of knowledge to remedy these cases was devastating to military effectiveness.”
The importance of sufficient food and water for mounts was obvious, but it proved difficult throughout both conflicts.
“In fairness, supply lines were very difficult to maintain in war, especially in South Africa and Palestine which lacked good roads and railways and were affected by harsh weather extremes, and lack of natural food and water supplies.
“For these very reasons, it should have been the leading priority for military commanders to keep supply lines open and well stocked, especially for modern armies with centuries of logistical experience.
“Both campaigns were marred with supply shortages which had tragic results in terms of horse casualties. In South Africa and Palestine, horses experienced starvation as many went for extended periods on below the minimum required daily ration.”
“This led to the breakdown of thousands of horses every month, and, in a war which placed so much emphasis on mobility, it is hard to imagine a more devastating hindrance to ‘military necessity’.”
Good grazing was often hard to come by in both campaigns and, even if available, the military situation may not have been conducive to open grazing.
In the desert campaign, water shortages restricted the movement of many units and caused widespread condition loss among the horses.
“Had the supply of food and fresh water been more successful in both campaigns, rations could have been increased to acceptable levels and the condition of animals would have been greatly improved.”
Sufficient supply and effective care would have gone a long way toward preventing the widespread effects of disease and injury, Wilson said. “Had these animals been kept in better condition, the numbers of casualties would have been greatly reduced.”
Disease was particularly devastating in South Africa, which highlighted massive deficiencies in military and veterinary management.
Veterinary services provided in World War 1 were far more organised than 15 years previously, he said, resulting in a marked fall in the death rate.
Despite the improvement, the numbers of horses hospitalised with disease could have been reduced with better systems for replacing tiring mounts, he believed.
Wilson said shortcomings in military systems led to high numbers of horse casualties.
“It would be unreasonable to suggest that these could have been completely eliminated with better structures,” he said, “but if the military authorities had been more organised, horse casualties could have been decreased and military effectiveness would have been improved.”
Wilson said the experience of New Zealand’s military horses was dire.
He noted that the Anglo-Boer War was one of the most devastating horse massacres in global history, with a total wastage of more than 400,000 horses in little more than three years.
It seemed bizarre, he said, that the British empire, with its vast experience in mounted warfare over hundreds of years, would fail so drastically in maintaining an expeditionary mounted force.
Many errors in official judgment cost many horses their lives, he said.
The Anglo-Boer War ultimately highlighted the British army’s need for crucial restructuring.
It is widely accepted that the biggest mistake which categorically led to the massive number of horse casualties was the supply of unconditioned, under-worked and non-acclimatised horses into immediate service.
“Horses were driven and worked to their very limit, then replaced by equally exhausted remounts, before being called to work again under similar conditions,” Wilson said.
“Horses were controlled by troops, many of whom had little appreciation for the requirements of the horse and were seemingly unaware of the pressure being put on their mounts.”
Veterinary or remount hospitals were so inefficiently run that disease spread throughout the force. The animals were caught in a downward spiral of disease, poor rations and exhaustion.
Wilson noted that A.B. (Banjo) Paterson, in his 1902 article on the history of horses in warfare, believed it was not the work which killed the horses, but the conditions under which they worked.
Wilson said it was a relief that improvements, especially around systems in supplying fresh mounts to replace tired horses, resulted in lower equine casualty rates during World War 1. The horse mortality rate dropped from 66 per cent in the Anglo-Boer War to 15 per in World War 1.
“There were still many lessons of the South African campaign which remained unlearnt by 1918,” Wilson said.
Most notable was the insistent use of cavalry tactics in conditions unsuited to cavalry warfare, the constant struggle to maintain regular and efficient supplies and the problems around supplying fresh mounts.
“Failures to correct these inefficiencies lead to the constant flow of animal casualties through the veterinary service, totalling nearly 450,000 sick or injured horses.
“Having so many animals out of service during the campaign devastated military effectiveness.
“The veterinary service was successful in eventually returning 82 per cent of these casualties to service, but this meant that the service was constantly pushed to the extremes of its capabilities.”
Ultimately, he said, in both campaigns there simply were not enough horses in the British Empire to sustain the mounted war effort, all made worse by military inefficiency.
Wilson said many people had been surprised by his choice of thesis subject, given he was not a particularly horsey individual. However, he had an interest in military history and the role of the New Zealand military horse had been little explored.
“Once aware that I was doing a Masters thesis, most people naturally enquired as to my topic,” he recalled.
“When confronted with the answer, the responses were overwhelmingly similar: a brief moment of confusion and apprehension as to whether I was serious or not, which then turned to realisation that I was absolutely serious, followed by an all-too-familiar tilt of the head accompanied with an overtly polite, nervous, almost sympathetic, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’.”
He managed to engender interest in about half those people – usually the “elder or more historically-minded half”.
The Anglo-Boer war ended in June, 1902, and World War 1 in 1918.
The precise numbers of New Zealand horses that survived the conflicts, as opposed to being shot, is not clear, given they fought in both cases with British forces.
Reloading tens of thousands of horses on to ships and embarking these heavily fatigued animals for weeks at sea could not be contemplated.
There were 131,700 surviving military horses, with an extra 28,700 sick horses in remount and debility camps, at the end of the Anglo-Boer War.
Between June 1, 1902, and February 28, 1903, 120,500 horses, 61,400 mules and 9000 donkeys were sold to local farmers and foreign armies. During this period, 9500 horses were destroyed due to outbreaks of glanders, mange and lymphangitis
The British-led troops of the desert campaign faced a complex dilemma at the end of the war. Soldiers faced a tough decision: either sell off the animals to local farmers, or destroy them.
Local farmers were infamous for their inhumane treatment of horses, Wilson said.
“Letters appeared in local and home press from British residents in Egypt strongly adverse to army horses being sold to local farmers.
“Many troopers believed that death was a better fate for these animals.”
That was the fate that befell many.
Wilson said the experience of the military horse could never have been enjoyable or even tolerable, such was the nature of war, but it could have been acceptable.
“Unfortunately, the terror inflicted upon hundreds of thousands of horses and the regrettable number of casualties was preventable and should have been curtailed,” he said.
The terrible experience of the military horse was due to deficiencies in the military and institutional ignorance, he concluded.
In both wars, military authorities failed to implement basic systems which would have improved conditions for the military horse.
“These authorities were completely unaware of the horse’s natural limits and continued to either implement policy which would exacerbate the horse’s condition, or refused to pursue strategy which would acknowledge the requirements of the animals.”
Faced with such deplorable conditions, the horses trudged on valiantly, Wilson said, faithfully yielding their last traces of energy to honour the duty placed upon them.
Marcus Wilson’s thesis, entitled “A History of New Zealand’s Military Horse: The Experience of the Horse in the Anglo-Boer War and World War One”, can be read in its entirety at http://ir.canterbury.ac.nz/bitstream/10092/959/1/thesis_fulltext.pdf
It was also published in 2008 by VDM publishers, and is available on Amazon.
Marcus Wilson, from Christchurch, received his Master of Arts degree in History from the University of Canterbury, for which he wrote his 2007 thesis. He now works as a Disarmament, Peace and Security researcher in Europe, and specialises in international small arms policy.
First published on Horsetalk on February 10, 2012. Updated in August, 2014.