REMEMBERING THE HORSE IN WORLD WAR ONE
Speech

SERVICE TO RECALL SERVICE AND SACRIFICE OF HORSES IN WW1, Three Counties Showground

How many different relationships we humans have with our horses.

The close tenderness of those little girls embracing their Thelwell ponies, delighting in the tenderness of their soft muzzles; the cavalry officers riding their charging steeds with flaring nostrils.

Horses have done more to change human history than any other domestic animal, carrying explorers to new frontiers and mighty armies to great conquests.

Horses have carried us on their backs for millennia; they have pulled our Brakes, Buggies, Dogcarts, Flies, Gigs, our Hackney carriages and Hansom cabs, our Landaus, Mail coaches, Phaetons, Stagecoaches and Traps.

They have drawn brewery drays, milk floats, coal carts and hay wains. They have towed canal boats and hauled hearses. They have been pit ponies and pack animals.

Farmers have used horses to power all manner of machines to plough, plant, harvest, winnow, stack or store.

Horses have made it possible for police officers to control crowds.

They provide recreation and sport - hunting, racing, show jumping and dressage.

They entertain us in formal displays and delight children in circuses.

Horses have jousted, taken part in great shows of pageantry – and they have fought in wars.

First, some 5,000 years ago, they pulled wagons and then chariots.

The Mongol hordes led by the legendary Genghis Khan, the Muslim warriors of the Middle Ages, and the American Indians all performed as highly effective light cavalry units.

British history – of civil war and invasion - is packed with battles decided by the effective use of the horse.

Today we recall with gratitude the enormous contribution and sacrifice of the horse in World War One, whether on the side of the victors or the defeated.

In that war many different types and sizes of horse, mule and donkey were used - for reconnaissance, cavalry charges, raiding, communication and supply.

And it’s fitting that Worcestershire of all counties should recall this contribution and sacrifice.

In the deserts and mountains of Palestine the horse was crucial to effective campaigning against the Ottoman Turks, the Germans and their allies.

It was in Palestine that the Worcestershire Yeomanry took part in what is reputed to have been the last cavalry charge against field guns in history.

On November 8th 1917 men and horses from the Worcestershire and Warwickshire Yeomanries charged for nearly a mile into the face of Austrian field guns.

My own father was born in 1894 and fought in Palestine with the Berkshire Yeomanry, the Imperial Camel Corps and the Worcestershire Yeomanry.

Like so many young men from both Berkshire and Worcestershire he fought first as an infantry man at Gallipoli.

But then for nearly four years - from 1916 until his discharge in late 1919 - he rode horses and camels in a series of engagements in Palestine and modern day Jordan and Syria. He went into action under the leadership of Lawrence of Arabia at least once.

I am wearing the medals he was awarded for his First World War service, spent largely in the saddles of those horses and camels.

So although the great book, stage play and film “War Horse” is about the bloody existence of horses in Flanders and around the trenches, during the Great War horses served the British army in other vital theatres of war too.

At the end of the war, half of the British Army’s horses were in France. The rest were deployed in the Balkans, the Middle East, Egypt, Italy and, of course, at home in the UK.

The scale of the contribution of the horse to World War One is humbling and numbing.

During the conflict the British Army used more than 1.2 million horses and mules.

By the end of the war, more than half a million of these had died, gone missing, been destroyed or sold.

There weren't enough horses in Britain to meet demand, so over 1,000 horses a week were shipped from North America, where there was a plentiful supply of half-wild horses on the open plains.

New Zealand gunner Bert Stokes recalled being told in 1917
“To lose a horse was worse than losing a man, because... men were replaceable, while horses weren’t.”

Just a quarter of horse deaths were caused by enemy action. The biggest killer was ‘debility’ – a condition caused by the demanding lives those horses lived; working so very hard, exposed to the elements, hungry and ill.

Yet somehow we have not sufficiently honoured the role of the horse in the wars of the twentieth century.

The poetry of the First World War scarcely mentions horses. Gurney’s ‘Pain’ is a rare and powerful depiction of the fate of horses in that war.

Seeing the pitiful eyes of men foredone,
Or horses shot, too tired merely to stir,
Dying in shell-holes both, slain by the mud.

Perhaps the horse was overlooked because of the appalling novelty of the technical advances - the tank, the artillery and poison gas - all of which brutalised men and made this war the first true modern war.

Perhaps a war in which death was mechanised, industrialised on a shocking scale, meant that the traditional dependence of man on horse for war-fighting tended to be forgotten.

And that is why I am so pleased the Countryside Alliance, the local Armed Forces Community Covenant and Worcestershire County Council have organised today’s event.

For without the horse we could not have fought and won. It is that simple.

Thinking of the play War Horse once more, for me the most powerful moment is when Joey, the equine hero, encounters his first tank.

As Michael Morpurgo intends, we see the future of warfare through the horse’s eyes.

The noise, the size, the power of the tank overwhelm and terrify poor Joey.

Present meets future.

The audience knows that the flesh and blood of the horse will make way for iron and steel.

Five millennia of the war horse are at an end.

Well, not quite.

Yes, horse cavalry began to be phased out after World War I in favour of tank warfare, but a few horse cavalry units were still used into World War II, especially as scouts.

By the end of World War II, horses were seldom seen in battle, but they were still used extensively for the transport of troops and supplies.

Even today, horses are used by armies in some developing countries; many nations maintain small units of mounted riders for patrol and reconnaissance.

And there are still horses in the British army today, but for pageantry and display, not for war, in the Household Cavalry’s Life Guards and its Blues and Royals, and in the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery.

The fine British tradition of animal welfare was also in evidence during the Great War.

The organisation we now know as Blue Cross was then in its early days. It worked during the war to raise money for the wounded horses of the war.

Perhaps some may still question why we are here today remembering the sacrifice of horses when so many men died and suffered.

To answer that I end by quoting from a fundraising book of poems published by Blue Cross, in 1917.

The book included this simple verse, Why Not:

Pray a prayer for the men at the war,
As the bells ring out at noon
Pray for the reign of love and law,
For the world-peace dawning soon,
Pray for mothers, and children, and wives,
For all who suffer and do,
Pray for the men who give their lives –
Why not for the horses too?

ENDS


Back to Speeches