Feature Articles - The Forgotten Army

Royal Field Artillery on active service - "Forward the Guns!" (click to enlarge) 'I believe that every soldier who has anything to do with horse or mule has come to love them for what they are and the grand work they have done and are doing in and out of the death zones.' Captain Sidney Galtrey, autumn 1918

They were with the BEF from the very start.  They were with the BEF at the very end.  They served at the Front, in the rear and in the support lines.  They stumbled through the hell of no-man's land, closely following every British and Commonwealth push.  In the mud, rain and terror of the trenches they supplied their comrades with food, water and ammunition, even though they themselves were starved, sodden and spent.  They died in their thousands.

The light draught horse and mule played a role that is often overlooked by commentators and historians of the Western Front, but without them the ability of the British Army to wage war would have been nigh on impossible.  Taken from the fields, cities, factories and coal-pits of Britain and from the rolling plains of America and Canada, the light draught horse was press-ganged and shipped off to a terrible world just as unfamiliar to them as it was for their conscripted human counterparts.


Throughout the War, the British Army relied heavily on its horses and mules.  Animals designated 'light draught' (from a height of 15h 2ins to 16h and a weight of up to 1,200lb) were used to pull light artillery limbers, wagons and ambulances, to carry supplies and munitions, or to perform other important odds and ends - either singularly or in teams.  To put it simply, they were the backbone of the Army's logistic support.

'Heavy draught' horses were of a bigger and sturdier type, like the Shire horse.  They were teamed together to pull the larger artillery pieces.  But, as time went by, they were replaced - the largest guns of war had become ever bigger and needed tractors, motor vehicles and even locomotives to pull them.

The light draught horse and mule, however, went on to prove their worth time and again.  Indeed, their numbers with the BEF in France rose from 25,000 to over 475,000 by the autumn of 1918.  On all fronts and theatres a staggering 1 million plus horses and mules were listed in service with British and Commonwealth forces by the close of war.

On the Western Front over 256,000 horses and mules had died.  The figures could have been worse were it not for the sterling work of the Veterinary Corps (in 1918 they were given the 'Royal' prefix in recognition of their efforts).

At the start of the conflict, the Remount Service, the organisation charged with securing the Army's mules and horses, was expecting a short and sharp conflict (like everyone else in the country).  That said they still erred on the side of caution and decided to acquire what was considered by some to be an excessive quantity.

In the first 12 days of war their special purchasers went out across the country buying draught animals left, right and centre and at the end of these 12 days, over 165,000 had been acquired for in military service!  Impressive as this initial drive was, the numbers were inadequate for the oncoming titanic struggle, but of course nobody at the time could have possibly foreseen this.

Baptism of Fire

The learning curve of having to look after such an unprecedented amount of animals all at once was a steep one and a number of mistakes were made.  But in the main, those in control of the animals showed an amazing degree of patience and proficiency in looking after their beasts of burden.  Although it should be noted that in the early stages of the war, the troops and the officers in charge of the animals were either professionals or reservists with a good deal of equine experience.  The problems of inexperience were further down the track.

In the first months of the war the Army was engaged in a series of rapid battles and withdrawals - draught horses were essential for the BEF to remain one step ahead of the German juggernaut and, when the conditions favoured it, to take the fight back to the enemy.

All of this meant that the horses and mules already at the front had a particularly tough time.  During the retreat and rearguard actions many were caught in the open trying to deliver desperately needed munitions and supplies in the face of heavy enemy fire; at the Battle of Le Cateau on 26 August, Albert George, an Artillery Sergeant, remembered the bravery of one doomed team:

We could see ammunition wagons trying to replenish getting about half-way to the gun, then a couple of shells would burst blowing the drivers and horses to smithereens, it was a terrible sight but the last two days had made us used to it.

Another artillery man, Gunner J W Palmer, remembered the difficulties they faced in keeping their horses fed and watered during the painful retreat:

The position over the rations for both men and horses was rather precarious.  These were the days when we went without rations of any kind or water.  The horses were more or less starved of water.  On the retreat we went to various streams with our buckets, but no sooner had we got the water halfway back to them, than we moved again.

We had strong feelings towards our horses.  We went into the fields and beat the corn and oats out of the ears and brought them back, but that didn't save them.  As the days went on, the horse's belly got more up into the middle of its back, and the cry was frequently down the line, "Saddler - a plate and a punch!"

This meant that the saddler had to come along and punch some more holes in the horse's leather girth to keep the saddles on.

After the great retreats and sturdy defences of 1914, the trenches and defence systems that are so well known began to form, but work for the horses and mules continued.  All manner of equipment had to be bought up to the battle lines as far as it is was possible, and where the motor trucks could not go, the horse and the mule were used almost exclusively (although the Poor Bloody Infantry became honorary 'pack animals' on all too many occasions!).

Food and 'Shelter'

"Somewhere the sun is shining" (click to enlarge)Supplying the feed for the animals was a feat in itself.  The average ration for the light draught horse during a 'normal' spell in France was 12lbs of oats, 10lbs of hay and some bran for a bran mash at least once a week.

E D Miller in his pamphlet, Horse Management on Active Service published in early 1918, noted down what he considered the best feeding procedure:

Horses want food very early in the morning and as late as possible at night… so put in the nosebags last thing at night 2 and 1/2lbs of chaff and make the line sentries put the nose bags on first thing in the morning, say 6am, and let them have a nibble of chaff.

At 7a.m. water.  They will not drink much, but some of them want it: feed with 4lbs of oats mixed with a handful of chaff.  At 11.30a.m. water. At 12 (noon) feed with the same.  At 4.30p.m. water.  At 7pm give them the remainder of the hay in nets or in the racks.  This is done by the line sentries.

Accommodation for the animals was, on the whole, a rudimentary affair.  In many cases a simple picket line sufficed, which in fine weather conditions was not a problem.  In the winter, however, it was a serious and potentially lethal situation, and the Army compounded the danger with its confused stance on the clipping of the horse and mule's winter hair, a shaggy coat, which keeps them warm and protects them from the elements but can also aggravate and disguise various skin disorders and parasitical activity, all of which can become seriously debilitating.

Army vets and those caring for the animals were therefore told to clip the coats, a measure that would have been fine in peacetime when horses and mules could be stabled or, if in winter paddocks, have rugs thrown over them and then replaced at regular intervals.  But winter coats where there is rudimentary shelter, and where exposed animals given sodden rugs are at risk of developing fatal pneumonia, are vital to the horse and mule's survival.

Thus the decision to clip meant that many of the animals were lost to exposure in that first winter because of a short-sighted order that, on paper, looked like the sensible thing to do.  In the years to come, those in charge of horses and mules left most of the winter coat unshorn.  By 1918 the clipping of only the legs and bellies had became standard Army practise.


As the British Army mushroomed in numbers, more horses and mules were needed.  The Remount Service having scoured this country started to look overseas for new 'recruits' and replacements for those that had been lost, or no longer fit to return to duty.

North America was the most obvious place to look.  With its vast plains and intensive farming, the rolling lands of the West had produced a light draught horse that was a breed apart from its European ancestors and, importantly, there were plenty of them.

U.S., and to a much lesser extent Canadian, horses and mules eventually made up two thirds of those used by the British Army.  Their supply was constant over the war years, which left many, including Sidney Galtrey, wondering 'how America came to have so many horses available'.

Remount Service purchasers (all whom had to have a good deal of equine experience so as not to be conned into buying 'duds'), travelled throughout the West and Midwest buying thousands and thousands of animals.

At first sight, the 'Yankees', as Tommy affectionately called them, were in a rough and ready shape - they were shoeless, long-haired, tousled-maned and had ragged hips.  But they were tough; generations of their kind had become completely at home with roaming out in the open and in all kinds of weather.

Colour-wise they were mostly black or grey, although there was a fair representation of bays and chestnuts as well.

After being brought at large fairs, the American horse or mule would be branded with the British Army's broad arrow symbol and then taken to the nearest railhead for immediate transportation.

Having so many animals together was a medical as well as a logistical problem.  Horses were particularly prone to 'Shipping Fever', (a form of pneumonia), and pulmonary complaints.  Mules, on the other hand, were much hardier although far more obstinate.

The animals were taken off the trains every 36 hours for watering and feeding at specially constructed stop-over depots.  They were also allowed to stretch their legs, which must have been most welcome after being cooped up for such a long period.  At these stop-over depots there were plenty of vets looking for any signs of disease or distress.  Every animal had their temperature checked and those not up for shipping were taken out of the line to regain their health and await a later departure.

Arriving on East Coast docks, the horses and mules were quickly loaded on transport ships heading for the U.K.  Resting them back to peak condition at this stage would have taken too much time, and so the Remount Service rightly decided it was best to get the gruelling transatlantic journey over and done with as soon as possible.

But again, any animal looking particularly ill or with a high temperature was taken from the line.  Once on the ships (after a degree of coaxing) the animals were placed in their stalls and given round-the-clock checks when the voyage started.  One has to feel sympathetic for the men having to feed, water and care for the creatures - after three weeks below deck the smell must have been terrible.

After arriving in the U.K., the animals were promptly unloaded.  The horses were, if you will excuse the pun, positively champing at the bit to get ashore.  Some of the mules, however, usually those who had been unwilling to board, were now unwilling to get off!

Many of the horses, and some of the mules, were understandably feeling seedy after such a gruelling journey.  It was the job of the Remount Service and the Veterinary Corps to get the animals fighting-fit.  With decent care and hearty rations this was soon achieved.

Groomed and well cared for, both 'Yankees' and 'Brits' were placed onto transports and shipped to France.  Upon arrival, the animals were taken to specialised depot on the north coast (by the war's end there were five of these depots).  Carefully checked and passed fit for service, the horses and mules were ready for the Western Front.

Four-Legged Friends

As the New Army of 1915 and 1916 took shape, many city men, with no equine experience, suddenly found themselves in charge of unfamiliar animals.  But those in command displayed an amazing aptitude in turning the city boy with no horse and mule knowledge, into veritable rustics with an understanding of how to get the best from their animals.

There were, however, some amusing anecdotes of those who, no matter how well intentioned, were unsuitable to looking after these animals.  Captain Galtrey wrote of a transport officer (who was to later win the Military Cross, but because Galtrey was writing in war-time he does not mention the man's name), who made a particularly amusing bungle.

The young man made a complaint in regards to the quality of the oats his horses were receiving: '"What's the matter with the oats?" inquired the ADVS.  "Well sir," was the reply, "they are so small; they get into the horses' teeth."  "Ah, well that's bad, very bad.  Perhaps you'd better indent on Dados [Deputy Assistant Director of Ordinance Supply] for some toothpicks"!'

Teething troubles aside, the men came to love their horses and mules and so soldier and animal worked together on the Western Front regardless of rain, hail, snow and shine.  J M Brereton, the author of The Horse in War wrote: 'the soldier came to regard his horse almost as an extension of his being.'

And it is not misty-eyed romanticism to say this, for those at the front had a deep affection for these animals and time and again many memoirs lament the sight of dead or dying horses and mules scattered over the killing ground.  It was a case, perhaps of men accepting the nightmare that human hands had created, while feeling that the horrific deaths of defenceless and innocent animals was inherently wrong.

Signaller Jim Crow, 110th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, summed it up: 'We knew what we were there for; them poor devils didn't, did they?'  This deep-placed love and sympathy for the injured, wounded or dying horse and mule was reflected in F. Matania's painting Goodbye Old Man, a haunting picture depicting a Tommy saying goodbye to one of his mortally wounded horses.  The image was a bestseller.

Matania's painting is not just fanciful romanticism; time and again, men who survived the horror of shells, shrapnel and bullets, had to say heartbreaking goodbyes to their good friends and were left in what we today would call a state of post-traumatic shock.

A passage in Forgotten Voices by Max Arthur is illustrative of the pain these poor men felt at the loss of their charges.  Recorded by the Imperial War Museum, Gunner H Doggett remembered a vivid scene from 1917 that is worth recounting here:

Our ammunition wagon had only been there a second or two when a shell killed the horse under the driver.  We went over to him and tried to unharness the horse and cut the traces away.  He just kneeled and watched this horse.

A brigadier then came along, a brass hat, and tapped this boy on the shoulder and said, "Never mind, sonny!"  The driver looked up at him for a second and all of a sudden he said, "Bloody Germans!"  Then he pointed his finger and he stood like stone as though he was transfixed.

The Brass Hat said to his captain, "All right, take the boy down the line and see that he has two or three days rest."  Then he turned to our captain and said, "If everyone was like that who loved animals we would be all right."

The Nadir

Horses struggling through mud (click to enlarge)The large scale offensives had, since the beginning of the War, always been a particularly dangerous time for the horse and mule: they could get caught up in murderous artillery fire, or riddled with the bullets from enemy machine guns.  They could be shot to pieces by marauding aircraft on the look-out for an easy target.  They could be worked to breaking point, or killed by exposure, having stumbled over mile after mile of putrid ground, breathing in an atmosphere laden with poison gas.

The years of 1915 and 1916 had seen plenty of carnage, but in 1917 it seemed that all of the above factors would converge time and again, making this year, regardless of the care they received, the most lethal for the horse and mule.

Galtrey highlighted the winter of 1916/17 and the subsequent Arras offensives as the most difficult and dangerous time in the horse and mule's service on the Front.  'The mud was awful,' he wrote, 'and literally engulfed the horses.  There were parts where wheeled traffic could not go, and yet supplies had to be got to their objectives and the guns moved as directed.  So loads had to be carried as packs and, in this way weighed-down, our war-horses and mules were pulled to pieces.'

Thousands, he added, were lost to 'the strain of service', the 'indescribable' weather and the 'serious curtailment of the oat ration'.  With basic rations, and worked night and day in terrible conditions, the poor animals were all too easily prone to 'breakdown' - sometimes this was fatal and sometimes it was not.

Either way, they were out of action and this could lead to a transport crisis.  For example, at the end of the great Arras offensives in April 1917, gunners were short of 3,500 draught horses.  The Royal Regiment of Artillery's 167th Brigade noted in its diary that: 'many horses died of sheer fatigue.'

Gunner Philip Sylvester also remembered the stark horror of this time:

We moved forward, but the conditions were terrible.  The ammunition that had been prepared by our leaders for this great spring offensive had to be brought up with the supplies, over roads which were sometimes up to one's knees in slimy yellow-brown mud.  The horses were up to their bellies in mud.  We'd put them on a picket line between the wagon wheels at night and they'd be sunk in over their fetlocks the next day. We had to shoot quite a number.

Exactly the same would happen again and again during the mud-and-blood bath of Third Ypres.  A most heart-wrenching account of a draught animal's plight was recorded by Lieutenant R G Dixon, 14th Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery:

Heaving about in the filthy mud of the road was an unfortunate mule with both of his forelegs shot away.  The poor brute, suffering God knows what untold agonies and terrors, was trying desperately to get to its feet which weren't there.  Writhing and heaving, tossing its head about in its wild attempts, not knowing that it no longer had any front legs.

I had my revolver with me, but couldn't get near the animal, which lashed out at us with its hind legs and tossed its head unceasingly.  Jerry's shells were arriving pretty fast - we made some desperate attempts to get the mule so that I could put a bullet behind its ear into the brain, but to no avail.

By lingering there, trying to put the creature out of its pain I was risking not only my life but also my companions'.  The shelling got more intense - perhaps one would hit the poor thing and put it out of its misery.

Care and Kindness

Because of the valuable work they performed both at the Front and in support lines, the care of horses and mules was given top priority.  Disease and fatigue, as we have noted, were the biggest enemies.  To combat them, the Army created large Convalescent Horse Depots where the animals could be taken for treatment and cure.  If they were suffering from fatigue they were allowed to rest in peaceful fields, a world away from the muddy graveyard of the Front.

Parasitic conditions, like lice and mange were treated with special dipping baths.  Early identification of the disease Glanders was possible by giving the animals a diagnostic substance called 'Mallein'.  If the animal was ill, then a remedy could be quickly administered before the malady took hold.  Over 1.5million doses of Mallein had been dished out in France before autumn of 1918.

60 pounder moving up in support (click to enlarge)The Veterinary Corps also went to great pains to educate those who were responsible for the care of the animals.

A ten-day course of lectures for both infantry and artillery transport officers was made, as far it was possible, obligatory.  At its peak, the course was attended by up to 50 officers and 300 NCOs a month.

With a knowledge of disease and veterinary science (even if was comparatively basic) horses and mules could be treated on the spot for minor ailments.  And with a semi-trained eye, serious cases could be diagnosed earlier and the 'patient' sent on for prompt veterinary treatment before any major damage was done.

Another measure taken to ensure the well-being of the draught animals was the appointment of a chief horse-master to every corps and below him, attached to smaller units, sub-ordinate horse-masters.  These men were experts in horse and stable management and gave invaluable advice and aid to units in and out of the field.  They also weeded out those who were either incapable or negligent in caring for their animals.

Because of the Veterinary Corps' efforts, a British Army horse and mule, should it be taken out of line, had a 78% chance of a recovery and return to active service.  Given that modern veterinary science, as we know it, was still in its infancy, one can only describe this result as truly staggering.  The Veterinary Corps really did deserve their 'Royal' prefix.

A Bittersweet Victory

By 1918 the care of horses and mules in the British Army was not only well organised, but envied by all other nations fighting on the Western Front.

In the great spring offensives Ludendorff was, according to a number of accounts, particularly keen for his armies to capture and then utilise these animals during the German advance.  Thankfully, it was not to be, and in the heady days of open warfare in the great Allied counter-attacks, the British Army's horses and mules were there in the thick of it, bringing up vital supplies and munitions.

In December 1918, the victorious British Army marched in parade ground order over the Rhine into Cologne, directly under the gaze of the defeated Kaiser's statue.  Fittingly, their horses and mules were there too.

Captain T H Westmacott recorded the occasion with pride:

The horses were all fit and hard as nails, and the buckles of the harnesses were all burnished like silver.  The mules were as fit as the horses, and went on wagging their old ears as if they crossed the Rhine every day of the week.  A German looking on said that the Division must have come fresh from England.

Unfortunately, those animals remaining in the British Army's service were the fittest and the best available.  The 'standard' and 'poor quality' animals were either auctioned off at rock-bottom prices or sold to French butchers, a terrible fate given the services these brave beasts had performed.

There were, however, some happy endings.  Four officers clubbed together funds to purchase and then ensure a peaceful retirement for a horse called David.  This extraordinary animal had served when a youngster, in the Boer War.  As a veteran on the Western Front, David served every day without fail (except for the one occasion he was wounded!)

Other survivors were a gun team of beautiful black horses.  After the War, they were given the great honour of transporting the coffin of the Unknown Soldier to Westminster Abbey.  The team, affectionately known as 'The Old Blacks', were finally retired in 1926.

Every November 11, those who care, remember the great sacrifice of the men and woman who fell, were maimed or participated in the Great War.  But the efforts of the 256,000 horses and mules that went to the Front, served alongside their human masters, but never returned, and the countless thousands who were sent to slaughter houses or a life of near slavery after the War, have faded from memory.

Many of the soldiers and officers who witnessed their slaughter, took special care to remember the light draught horse and mule's courage in and out of the killing fields, and we should strive to do the same - otherwise their sacrifice is set to become a mere footnote in the pages of history.

A 'Wibble-Wobble' was slang for tanks.

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