Horses – and mules – in World War 1

Have you seen War Horse? Very moving. For more facts about horses – and mules – in the First World War  “The Equine Army” episode in the BBC series “World War 1 at Home” is great.

Just how many horses and mules were involved? The answer might amaze you: nearly a million by the end of the war.

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In fact, the army had gone a long way towards mechanization by the outbreak of the war – it was a matter of the sheer scale of the supplies and light artillery which needed to be hauled about Europe that led to the use of so many horses. There were some 25,000 horses in the army to begin with in 1914 but by the end of the first year of the war there were half a million. How did the army manage this? Because there simply weren’t enough horses, even on farms, in Britain, they started importing wild mustangs from the USA and then mules. At one point, some one thousand horses and mules a week. They then had to tame them very quickly – generally using the old, Western methods of “breaking in” by roping and riding the horse to point of exhaustion. That wasn’t what the trainers wanted to do – it was a matter of the urgency of war.

Mules, according to “The Equine Army” programme, were a bit of a puzzle to the army at first. Treating them as horses didn’t work – mules of course are very independently minded. Some say stubborn. And there are some great clips that illustrate this: there’s one of a number of soldiers in a tug of war (and not winning) with one mule. And another of some soldiers trying to shoe a mule: the mule is tied up, it’s boxed in by wooden bars, its leg is tied to a post by a rope – and still it’s kicking out wildly while the farrier approaches with the hot shoe. Unlike a horse, a mule, as you can clearly see in this clip, can kick in all directions, not just backwards. Fortunately, the army eventually got used to mules, finding them more robust in the wartime environment of mud, cold, mud, bad weather, mud and heavy loads. Both horses and mules certainly played a big part in winning the war, but at a great cost.

War Horse, the movie, book or play, had some heart breaking moments but it does have [spoiler alert] a happy ending. Not so for the 484,000 horses and mules which died or were killed. And not so for the 900,000 or so which were unable to return to Britain.

Try catch up TV or hope for a DVD release to see World War 1 at Home: The Equine Army.

To read about your favourite film or TV horse, check out Lights! Camera! Gallop! The Story of the Horse in Film.

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