World War I Animals: Horses

WWI horses

This is the most repinned photo from my Pinterest board. Members of the Royal Scots Greys cavalry regiment rest their horses by the side of the road, in France. (National Library of Scotland)

World War I horses were immortalized in 2012 by Steven Spielburg’s movie based on Michael Murpurgo’s book War Horse.

A complete tear-jerker of a film, it told the story of a beautiful horse raised in the British countryside and requisitioned for war. The horse, Joey, changed hands with numerous people who appreciated him over the course of the war and when it ended . . .

you’ll have to see or read it yourself.

The story gave a good representation of what happened to horses during World War I and the tremendous role they played. The British could not have gone to war without them.

Technology advanced rapidly over the four years of the war, but at the start England was an agrarian society powered by the horse. According to Neil R. Storey in Animals in the First World War, the British army had only 80 motorized vehicles at the start of the war.


You read that number correctly.Giddy up: Dismounted cavalrymen take a  rest in a convenient shellhole while their mounts form a protective ring around them. Horses proved  ineffective in trench warfare, and by the war's end they had effectively been replaced by tanks

The entire army moved on the back of or behind horses.

They had 25,000 horses but the army would need more to fight a war on the European continent.

With an expectation of needing upwards of 500,000 horses, requisitioning began immediately. The southern and eastern counties, mostly farming communities, were scoured and depleted quickly–creating problems with harvesting food.

It quickly became clear, however, the British cavalry units were no match against German gunfire. According to Wikipedia, nineteen days into the war:

“On August 24, 1914, the 9th Lancers, a cavalry regiment led by David Campbell, engaged German troops with a squadron of 4th Dragoon Guards against German infantry and guns. Campbell obeyed his orders to charge, although he believed the more prudent course of action would have been to fight dismounted. The charge resulted in a British loss of 250 men and 300 horses.”

Or, twenty percent more horses died than soldiers.

WWI horses

German soldier and horses, both equipped with gas masks.

The British quickly changed tactics and horses were removed from actually fighting on the front lines, though they were still there in enormous numbers–transporting men, equipment, munitions and anything else needed at the front.

They could handle the quagmire mud, though it was difficult for them, better than automobiles (mass production of which had only begun 13 years before). The majority of soldiers may have been more familiar with dealing with a horse than coaxing a motorcar to move.

Their value was enormous and once soldiers discovered they needed gas masks, they quickly constructed masks for their horses.

Versatile, they could be used to shelter a soldier from enemy fire.

Just as soldiers could experience shell shock from battle and from the trauma of entering a war, it was difficult for horses as well.

WWI horses

One of the millions of horses used during the course of the war is winched ashore at Thessaloniki, Greece. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

Storey noted each horse sent to France from England had to be hoisted into the hold of a ship first. For some horses, the horror caused fatal heart attacks and some went berserk in the cramped conditions aboard ship.

Millions of horses served in the war. 484,000 British horses (one for every two men) died on the Western Front, though only 58,000 were killed by enemy fire. (Some German units targeted them. By the end of the war, the loss of a horse was considered of greater concern than a soldier.)

All told, an estimated 8 million horses died through all the theaters of war.

“The number of dead horses and mules shocked me; human corpses were all very well, but it seemed wrong for animals to be dragged into the war like this.” (Robert Graves, ‘Goodbye To All That’)

The majority died from overexposure, disease and sickness. The gas mask shown in the photo, a canvas sack fitting over the horses’ muzzle, often confused the animals. Thinking it was a feed bag, they would chew through it within minutes, thus exposing themselves to the killing gas.

The United States sent more than a million horses across the Atlantic Ocean to aid the Allies in their war efforts from 1914-1918.  When the American Expeditionary Army joined the war in 1918, they brought an additional 180,000. Only 200 horses returned home with the doughboys.


For more photos of WWI horses and other animals, see my Pinterest Board: WWI Animals



An overview of horses in WWI. Click to Tweet

How many horses served in France during WWI? Click to Tweet

Did War Horse tell the real story of horses in WWI? Click to Tweet
WWI horses


Thoughts? Reactions? Lurker?

%d bloggers like this: