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 Horses in World War I

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PostSubject: Horses in World War I   Wed 05 Sep 2012, 06:20

The thread on innovative extras to war coincided with me reading a historical piece (from New Zealand Memories April 2012) on the use of horses in the first World War by New Zealand troops. I suppose, though I don’t know, that the regulations for British and other allied forces would have been the same or similar.

I knew, of course, that we used horses, but I didn’t realise the restrictions on type etc. I think we sent about 10,000 horses overseas. On my father’s war enlistment record there is, among the typewritten bits, a handwritten question asking if he could ride a horse, to which he answered Yes, and then asked if he owned one to which he said No, and I think he joined originally The Otago Mounted Rifles but it soon changed to the Otago Light Armoured Vehicles Brigade.

The horses used were between four and seven years old, preferably geldings, and stallions were not permitted. “Very light colours were not accepted and all horses were expected to have some thoroughbred in them.” But not to be pure thoroughbred. (The picture accompanying this article has one horse which looks pure white to me, or at least a very light grey.) They seem to have needed more useful qualities than the soldiers themselves , having to be sound, able to work with losing condition, used to weapons being fired close to them, be good jumpers and be able to swim in deep raging water. Most of them were purchased, (it doesn’t say if they were commandeered or if people had a choice to sell) though some soldiers were able to take their own horses.

Naturally from here there was a long sea voyage and the horses who died on the way were “hoisted overboard”. At their war base they seemed to get a variety of food – hay, berseem (a kind of clover), chaff, straw, oats, maize, bran, dhoura (Indian millet) or barley, but not of high quality, and they were often lacking water for days. Injured horses were treated either by vets in the area, or railed to veterinary hospitals.

The Mounted Rifle Brigade wasn’t cavalry and didn’t attack from horseback, but used horses to ride through the battlefield, then dismounting to attack with rifles and bayonets. The horses were held by every fourth soldier (this seems a bit wasteful) who retreated from the battlefield. I think this was more or less the way Henry V used horses at Agincourt.

Quarantine reasons didn’t allow horses to return to New Zealand. It says most were passed to the British Army garrison units or sold to Middle East locals. (I thought lots of them were actually killed. Yes, I have now read that lots were killed, soldiers thinking it was kinder than the lives they might otherwise lead in Egypt and the Middle East.) Of all the horses to go to war from here, only one returned. She was away for six years and did not get injured. Bess was owned by Lt Col Powles (his son later became New Zealand’s first Ombudsman) and he had influence in high places. She lived to be 24. There is a memorial to her at Flock House*, an agricultural training farm which her owner was principal of, and another one in Western Australia, shifted from Port Said after the Suez Crisis. Only one horse (our of 8000) returned from the Anglo/Boer wars too and he was called Major. His owner commanded the New Zealand mounted contingent at Edward VII’s coronation and he was able to bring the horse back after that.

Flock House had quite an interesting history too. It began in 1924 as a ‘reward’ to British Navy seamen who had kept the shipping lanes open during the war and allowed New Zealand’s wool clip to get through. It provided farm training to sons of these navy men who were killed or wounded, and these boys were then given work on farms in NZ. From wikipedia: “The New Zealand Farmers Union established the "New Zealand Sheep Owners Acknowledgement of Debt to British Seamen Fund", from farmers' wool-clip earnings and from 1921 funds were distributed to dependents in England. Farmers raised £235,000 but unfortunately the government decided that was taxable income and took £35,000 of it. It was later extended to girls. “The girls were taught cooking, baking, laundry, sewing, butter-making, nursing, milking, poultry and bee-keeping and orchard culture.” 625 boys and 128 girls from Britain were trained there, and 22 young men from Flock House were killed in WWII. And later still, when the Depression hit, opened to New Zealanders, and eventually closed for good in 1988. http://www.genebug.net/flock.html

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PostSubject: Re: Horses in World War I   Wed 05 Sep 2012, 14:48

AIUI The Scots Greys had to dye their horses in 1914, using potassium permanaganate to turn them into "liver chestnuts". I think the recruitment of horses had been rejigged as a response to the Boer War shortages, where even the omnibus horses had to be taken into service - and the Wagons, GS, had to have bells fitted so that they could be signalled to start and stop in the manner they were used to. IIRC Ally Sloper's Cavalry tended to use more mules and hinnys than horses - not sure if they were de-brayed in WWI, but they certainly were in WWII.
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PostSubject: Re: Horses in World War I   Thu 06 Sep 2012, 06:16

De-brayed? I don't like the sound (or rather lack of sound) of that. Bad enough what people do to each other in wartime but they could spare the horses. Or in this case the donkeys.

I think I have mentioned before that I was puzzled at why my great-uncle's war records state that he was 5'9" when he was considerably taller than that. But I read somewhere that soldiers on horseback in the Boer War had to be under 5 ft 9 and a half inches, and I wonder if that was significant, perhaps WWI people had to be under a certain height too, and by that stage of the war (1917) maybe falsifying such records was justifiable. But my great-uncle was a rifleman in the Rifle Brigade - it didn't say anything about Mounted Rifle Brigade.
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PostSubject: Re: Horses in World War I   Thu 06 Sep 2012, 06:40

It reminds me of something else I've read concerning recruitment for the Royal Dublin Fusiliers which, after the Childers Reforms, was conducted at just one small office in Parkgate Street. This was perectly adequate under normal circumstances, however so great was the initial rush of volunteers at the outbreak of war in 1914 that the screening facilities were rather overwhelmed and as long as one wasn't under 5 foot one ended up with a height of "standard" on one's papers (standard health was another one). It became a running joke at the time - the other Irish regiments referred to them as "the standard bearers", that being one of the polite variations on the theme amongst the soldiery.
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PostSubject: Re: Horses in World War I   Thu 06 Sep 2012, 15:42

AIUI pre-WWII British cavalry had to be at least 5'2" and no more than 5'9"
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