The war that claimed the lives of eight million horses and donkeys

| 4 August 2014 9:45 am
The first motorised ambulance used to transport injured war horses from the battlefields of World War 1 to veterinary hospitals. Photo: The Horse Trust

The first motorised ambulance used to transport injured war horses from the battlefields of World War 1 to veterinary hospitals. Photo: The Horse Trust

The world is marking 100 years since the outbreak of World War 1 – a gruelling conflict that was to ultimately claim the lives of an estimated eight million horses and donkeys.

The toll mounted not only in the front line. Many lost their lives toiling to carry ammunition and supplies to support troops. Like the foot soldiers, they suffered years of hardship and deprivation.

Like their human comrades, the horses succumbed not only to bullets, but deadly gas attacks, disease, and food shortages.

World War 1 is estimated to have cost 37 million human lives from all causes, with 6.8 million of them recorded as combat-related deaths.

Most of the European armies during the conflict were horse-drawn, which meant long hours of toil for the millions of horses drawn into service.

A promotional poster for The Blue Cross Fund

A promotional poster for The Blue Cross Fund.

Several charities have important links to the battlefields of Europe, among them the Blue Cross.

It treated more than 50,000 sick and injured horses and 18,000 dogs during the Great War, all funded by donations from the British public.

Founded in 1897 as Our Dumb Friends League, the charity gained its current name from its valuable work helping animals in both world wars.

A Blue Cross flag – to distinguish from the Red Cross facilities for injured men – flew over animal hospitals across the battlefields of Europe and identified animal ambulances and vital medical supplies sent to the front lines.

While horses were crucial in ferrying supplies, dogs were also a huge help to soldiers on the battlefields as they were used to run messages, detect mines, and act as patrol dogs, among many other tasks.

Perhaps slightly less known is the number of pigeons that served during the war and risked their lives by carrying vital messages over long distances.

The Blue Cross said it believed all those who fought heroically during 1914 to 1918 – people and animals – were deserving of some recognition.

Among the charity’s World War 1 initiatives was The Blue Cross Fund, which raised £170,000 (nearly £6.5 million today) for sick and injured animals during the conflict.

Britain sent 1 million horses to France for World War 1 duties. Only 62,000 returned.

When World War 1 began in 1914, the British army had just 25,000 horses. The War Office was given the urgent task of sourcing half a million more to go into battle.

In the first year of war the countryside was emptied of suitable mounts as the government set about requisitioning the animals for the war effort.

They were transported to ports, where they were hoisted on to ships to cross the English Channel before being initiated into the horrors of the front line either as beasts of burden or as cavalry horses.

Some men formed close relationships with their mounts, but could do little to prevent the appallingly high death rate due to exhaustion, shelling and front-line charges.

Some were harsher in their attitudes; under constant threat of death themselves and having lost close comrades, they became hardened to the loss of their horses.

Dorothy Brooke in the yard of the SPCA in Cairo with some of the war horses she rescued in the 1930s. © The Brooke

Dorothy Brooke in the yard of the SPCA in Cairo with some of the war horses she rescued in the 1930s. © The Brooke

The horses were essential to pull heavy guns, to transport weapons and supplies, to carry the wounded and dying to hospital and to mount cavalry charges.

The supply of horses needed to be constantly replenished and the main source was the United States. The British government arranged for half a million horses to be transported across the Atlantic in horse convoys.

Between 1914 and 1917, about 1000 horses were sent from the United States by ship every day. They were a constant target for German naval attack, with some lost en route.

The horses were so vital to the continuation of the war effort that German saboteurs also attempted to poison them before they embarked on the journey.

Mules were also a key part of the war effort. They were found to have tremendous stamina in extreme climates and over the most difficult terrain, serving courageously in the freezing mud on the Western Front and later at Monte Cassino in World War 2.

Another charity which traces its roots back to World War 1 is The Brooke, when founder Dorothy Brooke organised the rescue of 5000 former warhorses in Egypt.

The British-based international charity continues its work to this day, helping to improve the lot of working animals around the globe.

Following World War 1, it was estimated that 20,000 horses belonging to the British, Australian and American forces were sold into a life of hard labour in Egypt alone.

In 1930, Mrs Brooke travelled to Egypt with her brigadier husband. She discovered many former warhorses were still alive, but these once proud animals were hungry and weak, lame, ill-shod, blind and suffering effects from the extreme climate.

She wrote in her diary: “Out here, in Egypt, there are still many hundreds of old army horses sold of necessity at the cessation of the war. They are all over 20 years of age by now, and to say that the majority of them have fallen on hard times is to express it very mildly.”

Dorothy Brooke feeding a horse outside the Old War Horse Memorial Hospital in Cairo. © The Brooke

Dorothy Brooke feeding a horse outside the Old War Horse Memorial Hospital in Cairo. © The Brooke

She explained: “These old horses were, many of them, born and bred in the green fields of England – how many years since they have seen a field, heard a stream of water or a kind word in English?”

She sought out the remaining war horses and organised an appeal in The Morning Post – now the Daily Telegraph.

The public were so moved they sent her the equivalent of £20,000 in today’s money to help end their suffering.

Within three years, she had set up a committee and bought 5000 former warhorses.

Aware many more working horses, donkeys and mules were in need, she set up the Brooke Hospital for Animals in 1934 and opened the “Old War Horse Memorial Hospital” in Cairo, which remains operational today.

The Horse Trust in Britain is also looking back at 100 years of helping war horses throughout the conflicts of the last century.

Founded in 1886 to help London’s working horses, the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914 drove the charity to new heights.

Known at the time as The Home of Rest for Horses, its patrons were inspired to help the plight of war horses and provided the first motorised horse ambulance to transport wounded horses from the front line in France.

The charity’s 1916 annual report reveals that in two years this ambulance travelled about 13,000 miles and carried more than 1000 injured horses.

So successful was its operation that the War Office commissioned 13 more of them and there were 14 horse ambulances operating across the battlefields of France at the end of the war.

To this day, the charity maintains a close relationship with Britain’s armed forces, helping horses that have served in the army, providing many with a dignified retirement after years of service.

The charity’s very first war veteran, San Toy, retired to the Home of Rest in 1919 after serving in both the Boer and World War 1 campaigns. He stayed until his death in 1923.


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  1. julie says:

    What about the lives of the horses and donkeys that the government killed after the war was over? The ones that they did not want to care for after the war since the calvary changed to the use of tanks?

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