From Zoe: It's Our Nature, May 2011
Horses have rightly been called the supreme animals of war. They have played the largest role of any animal in war, and have paid the price more than all other animals put together. In many wars, their deaths greatly outnumbered those of humans.
The history of horses in war begins more than 4,000 years ago in the Middle East.
The Hyksos people build horse-drawn chariots for their continuing feud with the Egyptian Empire. They drive their one-man, one-horse vehicles into the heart of the Egyptian army with devastating and terrifying effect. But the Egyptians waste no time building their own chariots, bigger and better, soon drawn by two horses and carrying three men: one to steer, and two to fire on the enemy.
The Egyptian chariot corps has now become the elite force of the Egyptian army, scattering their enemies, who retaliate, whenever possible, by slashing the tendons of the horses’ legs, thus hamstringing them and leaving them unable to walk so that they die under the burning desert sun.
12-year-old Alexander of Macedon persuades his father to let him try to ride Bucephalus, an uncontrollable horse who’s going to be put down. Understanding that Bucephalus is afraid of his own shadow, Alexander walks calmly up to him, turns the horse’s head to face the sun so he can’t see his shadow, strokes him, and climbs on his back without problem. (Or, at least, so the story goes!)
Alexander rides the horse through dozens of campaigns in Persia and India, and when Bucephalus dies, he is buried with military honors and a city is built over his grave.
The Middle Ages
War is becoming increasingly technological and complex, and after the invention of the deadly crossbow and longbow, horses are being bred bigger and bigger, so they can be outfitted with heavy armor and carry an armored knight.
By the time of the Battle of Hastings, horses are outfitted with stirrups and saddles, which Europe has learned from the invasion of Attila the Hun.
Battle of Bannockburn. Robert the Bruce defeats England’s Edward II. The armored horses and their English knight riders are so heavy they get bogged down in the muddy battlefield, where many of them die.
Gunpowder vs. horses. As horses become ever more vulnerable to artillery, Frederick the Great introduces gun carriages, each drawn by a team of six galloping horses. In 1793, the British counter by creating the Royal Horse Artillery.
Revolutions, Retreats and Civil War
By the time of the American Revolution, gun carriages are part of every well-outfitted armory.
Napoleon’s army retreats from Moscow. 30,000 horses starve or freeze to death. Meanwhile, the British are fighting the Peninsular War, during which horses are found frozen to death like statues, with their dead riders still in the saddle. Horses who survive the horror of the retreat stagger into Corunna only to be shot by soldiers when there’s no room for them on the boats.
Battle of Waterloo. Another horse massacre. British Army Captain Mercer writes in his diary:
Some lay on the ground with entrails hanging out. One poor animal … had lost both his hind legs, and there he sat the night long on his tail, looking about as if in expectation of coming aid, sending forth from time to time long and protracted melancholy neighing.
The American Civil War. As the fighting draws to a close, 600,000 people are dead and the South is declared the loser. But the real losers are the horses: more than a million horses and mules have been killed in the war – a clear victory of humans over horses.
The Royal Army Veterinary Corps is founded in the U.K. to care for horses wounded in war.
The Wars to End All Wars
Thousands of horses are conscripted from farms and families as “the war to end all wars,” as it’s dubbed gets under way. Two children write to British Commander Lord Kitchener:
Dear Lord Kitchener,
We are writing for our pony, which we are very afraid may be taken for your army. Please spare her. Daddy says she is going to be a mother early next year and is 17 years old. It would break our hearts to let her go. We have given two others and three of our family are now fighting for you in the Navy. Mother and all will do anything for you but do please let us keep old Betty and send official word quickly before anyone comes.
Your troubled little Britishers, P., L. and Freda Hewlett.
(Kitchener replies with a letter exempting old Betty from service.)
Of the 256,000 horses who have died in Europe on the Western front, only 58,000 are actually killed by enemy fire. The rest have died in the mud, the cold, caught in barbed wire, limbs broken from stumbling into trenches and shell craters, or poisoned by gas.
Across the Mediterranean, on the other hand, thousands more have died of heat and thirst in the deserts of Africa and the Middle East.
By the end of the war, 484,000 of the million horses and mules taken to war by the British alone are dead.
Due to their lack of veterinary support, it’s estimated that the Germans lost about two million horses, four times as many as the British.
In France alone, during the four years of war, 2,563,549 horses and mules were taken in to veterinary hospitals.
Dorothy Brooke, wife of a British general, pays a visit to Cairo, Egypt. She sees thousands of emaciated horses being used as beasts of burden for poor people trying to ply their trade. These are the same horses who had been shipped from the U.K. 15 years earlier to “serve their country” and were simply abandoned after the war when the troops went home.
Dorothy stays in Egypt to tend the horses and learns that a memorial statue to the horses of the war is being planned in London. She writes a letter to the Morning Post (today’s Daily Telegraph):
Sir: There have been several references lately in the columns of The Morning Post as to the possibility of raising a memorial to horses killed in the War. May I make a suggestion?
Out here, in Egypt, there are still many hundreds of old Army Horses …They are all over twenty years of age by now, and … the majority of them drag out wretched days of toil in the ownership of masters too poor to feed them – too inured to hardship themselves to appreciate, in the faintest degree, the sufferings of animals in their hands.
These old horses were, many of them, born and bred in the green fields of England – how many years since they have seen a field, heard a stream of water, or a kind word in English?
Many are blind – all are skeletons.
If those who truly love horses – who realize what it can mean to be very old, very hungry and thirsty, and very tired, in a country where hard, ceaseless work has to be done in great heat – will send contributions to help in giving a merciful end to our poor old war heroes, we shall be extremely grateful; and we venture to think that, in many ways, this may be as fitting (though unspectacular) part of a War Memorial as any other that could be devised.
Dorothy E. Brooke.
Donations flow in, and within three years, Dorothy is able to buy 5,000 of these ex-war horses. Many are old and sick beyond being able to be healed, and are mercifully put down. But by now Dorothy has enough support to open the Old War Horse Memorial Hospital in Cairo. Her goal is to provide free veterinary care for all the city’s working horses and donkeys.
Today, the Brooke Hospital for Animals works across Egypt, India, Pakistan, Jordan, Palestinian villages in Israel and the West Bank, Afghanistan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Nepal, reaching over 700,000 donkeys, horses and mules.
World War II. In a land where frost and snow could quickly bring tanks and trucks to a halt, Russia deployed 1,200,000 horses to the battlefields. Few of them survived. In the first ten minutes of one engagement, as the Germans advanced into Russia, 2,000 Russian horses were left dead and dying in the bloodstained snow, along with their riders, from machine gun fire. No Germans were hurt.
For 4,000 years, horses were considered the supreme war animal. Today, they are used less. But they still have a place in battle. In Afghanistan, US-backed rebels still gallop against the Taliban, sometimes joined on steeds by American soldiers half a century after the United States officially dissolved its last mounted fighting unit.