The role of the ‘war horse’ particularly during its twilight years during the First World War has recently become the focus of much interest. All armies have used horses in wartime as cavalry and mounted infantry, as officers chargers, for artillery or for transport and supply. Some large nations, because the horse formed a central role in its domestic life, became more associated with horses and horsemanship in the period when mechanised transport was making its first halting appearance onto the field of conflict. Russia was famous for its Cossacks and among the countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth the accomplished riders of Australia, New Zealand and, especially noteworthy, Canada—the home of the author of this book. Naturally, the author is concerned with the activities of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, but his book examines in detail the role of horses in every aspect of the Great War. He was not oblivious to the suffering of horses in war though, he clearly demonstrates a great affection for them in their military role. The book concludes with pictures and vignettes of individual horses of renown in the Canadian Army and a short piece on the service of dogs.
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In the case of horses and mules from foreign parts, they were shipped across the high seas in horse transports especially fitted for their comfort. Usually six hundred to eight hundred animals were shipped in each transport, and all horse transports carried a veterinary officer and ample veterinary supplies to attend their medical wants; also, each animal had a separate stall.<br>
Animals on the upper deck of the boats were provided with rugs, but those on the lower decks were not. The lower decks were supplied with fresh air, which was sent down by canvas wind sails with a wide bell mouth, arranged from the rigging, while electric fans drove out the foul air. By these means the lower decks were kept ventilated, thereby permitting the animals to travel in comfort in this respect. Ample food and fresh water was supplied in all ships. Further, the animals were exercised daily and their stalls kept clean.<br>
The navy rendered noble services by convoying the horse transports from the country of their origin to the war-ridden countries of France and Flanders.<br>
The journey on water was fraught with danger. The submarine when it was least expected, laid in wait and often caught the animals like rats in a trap. There was no possible chance of saving them; to see these animals drown and to be utterly powerless to render aid was a terrible sight for those in charge of the transport.<br>
This was the first thrilling stage of the career of the horse in war; for when a ship was torpedoed he seemed to have a prescience and by neighing and a restless demeanour in the stalls, he would give warning of the approach of danger.<br>
It is a well-known fact that the hunnish instinct of the German submarine commanders caused them to have pictures taken of these ghastly scenes, which were exhibited in Germany during the war. This will go down, very far down into history as one of their hellish atrocities.<br>
It was here that our dumb friends entered what can be properly called the second stage of their adventurous career. Once landed in Europe, the remounts were rushed to depots, and from there to divisions to be further distributed among brigades, where they were again distributed among the respective units of the brigade. Here they took their place beside the seasoned warriors and were almost immediately put into harness or under saddle. Like men, they often penetrated the forward areas the night following their arrival at the brigade; many failed to return to their new home, having sacrificed their lives in order that our men should not want for supplies or ammunition; those that returned carried on day in and day out.<br>
The transportation duties were heavy. The heavy horse transports were responsible for the transportation of rations and supplies from the divisional rail-head to the divisional dumps, where the unit transports proceeded daily for their supplies of rations, and returned with them to their own transport lines, at which points the rations were divided and distributed to the companies.<br>
In event of a unit being in the front line, the unit’s transport work was doubled by the fact that not only did the supplies have to be brought to their transport lines and divided, but it was also necessary for the supplies to be taken into the vicinity of the front line trenches. To carry this into effect the horses and mules were constantly under fire of the heavy and the light field artillery of the enemy, as well as machine gun and rifle fire in some instances. Exposed as were these animals, without cover, save only darkness, they accomplished their task with a feeling that a duty done was a victory won.<br>
I remember one very outstanding case of a supply cart horse belonging to one of the Canadian artillery units. After the horse and his rider had delivered the supplies to a party of men in advance of Spree Farm, near Ypres, this horse and its driver proceeded homeward to the horse lines, a field about one and a half miles from Vlamertinghe (East). Passing through St. Jean and Ypres, they continued past what was known as the asylum, where a shell exploded close by, killing the driver in the cart, and mortally wounding the horse.<br>
This did not mar the sagacity of the horse, for it continued down the Vlamertinghe Road to the railway crossing, where it turned first left, then sharp left again, and continued down a side road for nearly one mile, whence it turned left into a field where its lines were, and stopped. The picket on duty went to give assistance to unhitch the horse, and to his surprise found the master dead in the waggon from shell wounds. Examining the horse, he found its entrails trailing on the ground, and before he could unhitch the poor animal it dropped dead. Like its master it had made the supreme sacrifice and added one more hero to the list of dumb animals who cannot speak for themselves. This was but one of the many horses that gave their lives.