Serving Under Saddle: Officer's Chargers
While the first thing that might come to mind when considering the role of horses in the Great War might be the cavalry, that would in fact be the least frequent use of horses in the war. Far more horses and mules served in harness than under saddle (discounting for a moment that many of the draft horses were ridden while in harness, as in many cases the “drivers” did not ride on the vehicles but rather on the horses that were pulling vehicles and guns). But putting this aside, and focusing on horses that were ridden rather than being driven, it would be the Officer’s Chargers that made up the largest numbers of saddle horses used in the war.
In both the British and U.S. armies, officers were issued horses to ride as their daily mode of transportation. These “Officer’s Chargers” were the finest boned and lightest in appearance of all military horses. They were also the tallest, at 16 hands and sometimes more.
General John J. Pershing, U.S. Army and Edward, Prince of Wales reviewing troops. This photo is extraordinary in the contrast between these two men, one a young royal and a junior officer, the other the commander of the American Expeditionary Force. Both were keen horsemen, but Pershing with his enormous horse and erect military bearing forms a decided contrast to the Prince of Wales mounted on what appears to be a pony, slumping in his saddle.
General “Galloping Jack” Seely with Warrior, oil on canvas by Gilbert Joseph Holiday and hanging at Seely’s home Mottistone Manor.In a few cases, their stories became national legends, such as General Jack Seely and his horse Warrior, who became folk icons in Great Britain and Canada and whose actions and narrow escapes were followed by thousands of fans back home.
Even junior officers and senior enlisted men rode horses, but theirs were not as grand; known in the British army as “Officer’s cobs,” they might be large ponies or small horses, 14.2 to 15.1 hands tall. The term “cob” is used more in Britain than in the US, but the smaller, sturdy, plainer looking animal is easy to recognize in many of the American west’s cowponies and mustang stock.
Spike and SGT Ralph Blacketer, Q M Corps.Cavalry troopers got plainer animals still; in one British publication immediately following the war, cavalry troopers were to be issued “misfit hunters about 15.2 hands.”1
In 1915, well before the U.S. entered the war, the U.S. Cavalry Journal quoted Brigadier General E.A. Garlington, Inspector General of the U.S. Army, on the best and most desirable type of horse for the cavalry.
The best type of cavalry mount is a half-bred horse for the trooper, and a three-quarter or seven-eighths bred one for the officer, and the horse must have breeding and stamina enough to go through any kind of country. It should not be much over 15.2, as a big horse cannot stand the strain which the small, compact horse is capable of standing."2
"Half-bred" refers to the percentage of Thoroughbred blood, which the General clearly thought preferable to other bloodlines. But later, after the U.S. had entered the war, another opinion was forthcoming, this time from a member of the Quartermaster Corps. Major Clyde Hawkins put forth a comprehensive method for selecting and handling horses for government service.
King Albert of Belgium mounted on the Standardbred stallion Uhlan. The horse had been exported from the U.S. to stand at stud in Russia prior to the war, and had been sent to Belgium on his way back to the U.S. when the war broke out. He was one of the finest sires of his time. Photo courtesy of Stable of Memories, Red Mile, Lexington, KY.In order to obtain the proper type and conformation of cavalry horse for use of the government it is impossible to expect to obtain horses of one breed. In short, we must take what the country affords. In general, this horse is in part or in full a standard bred trotting horse. A great many horses are obtained for cavalry purposes with thoroughbred blood in their veins. It has been my experience that the best horse we obtain in this country for cavalry purposes is a cross between the thoroughbred sire and the standard bred mare." He goes on to note that very few thoroughbreds are available for the price the government is willing to pay, and though the large, big-boned thoroughbred is a grand horse, as a rule they are too hot-headed for the average trooper, but make excellent mounts for officers.3
The term “hunter” also merits explanation. Foxhunting was still a sport that was well known in both the U.S. and Britain during World War 1, but many “hunters” had never seen a fox. The hunter is a type of horse, not a breed. It is distinctly a riding horse, with sloping shoulders and pasterns, both of which result in smooth gaits. The head and neck should be set on at medium height relative to the body, neither high (making for large under-neck muscles and a tendency to pull on the bit) or too low (making the animal balance very much toward the front, or “fall on the forehand.”) The neck should not be short and it should arch upward, indicating some strength, rather than downward (ewe neck), generally a sign of weakness.
Many other conformation points were emphasized in the manuals for purchasing agents, most of them having to do with avoiding any body build that would pre-dispose the animal to lameness in the future. The hindquarters should be well muscled, as this is where the impulsion and forward motion of the riding horse come from. The back should be well muscled, both in order to provide a place for the saddle to rest and to support the core and allow agility. The withers (prominent ridge of the spine at the very base of the neck) should be well defined but not excessively high, as a horse with next to no withers and a horse with very high narrow withers will both be nearly impossible to fit with a saddle.
U.S. officer inspecting a field telephone switchboard, 1918. His flashy gray horse would have been considered completely unsuitable for the battlefield, not only because it would be highly visible to the enemy but also because it would be impossible to keep clean. But after the armistice, this horse was the equivalent of a sports car. In temperament, hunters (and ideal military horses) would be biddable, that is tractable and amenable to accepting the commands of the rider. They would have courage, sometimes known as heart – necessary in the hunt field to face rugged terrain and tricky fences, necessary in the battlefield to face frightening sights, sounds, and smells.
Officer’s horses were drawn from the Quartermaster (supply officer) just as were other supplies such as wagons, ammunition, clothing, and food. Many were routine mounts, but some officers wanted flashy horses as a matter of pride and prestige. Photos of officers with their mounts showing well-turned out animals and men in clean and nicely pressed uniforms were nearly all taken after the armistice or stateside prior to deployment. Interestingly, there are not many photos of officers on the battlefield, perhaps only because there were far more enlisted soldiers and draft horses than riding horses and officers.
- Graham Winton, Theirs Not To Reason Why, Horsing the British Army 1875-1925. Helion & Company Ltd., Solihull, 2013, p. 436.
- U.S. Cavalry Journal, January 1915, p. 488-489.
- Hawkins, Major Clyde E., Q.M. Corps, (Cavalry). "A Method of Purchasing, Inspecting and Handling Horses for Government Service." U.S. Cavalry Journal, Vol XXVIII, July 1917-June 1918, p. 111.
Serving Under Saddle: The Cavalry
“During this period [i.e., World War 1] all arms had a chance for development and employment except the Cavalry, so that to some unthinking person the day of the Cavalry seems to have passed. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The splendid work of the Cavalry in the [last] few weeks of the war more than justified its existence and the expense of its upkeep in the years of peace preceding the war….In any future war on the American Continent, the use of cavalry will be as important as it has been in the past.” John J. Pershing, General, U.S. Army, and Commander, American Expeditionary Force.1
World War 1 was a watershed time for the cavalry. Long the most prestigious part of any army, those in the cavalry watched with something of disbelief as their role slipped away and modern weaponry and tactics made the mounted soldier a thing of the past.
French cavalry with an observation blimp in the air behind them. Probably winter 1914.Trying to reassure each other and those who served under them, numbers of officers, both during and immediately after the war, published what can only be viewed today as odes to days and strategies gone by. Indeed, the army created the position of Chief of Cavalry after the war ended, and the U.S. Cavalry School at Fort Riley, Kansas, founded less than a decade before the war began, actually enjoyed its most halcyon days between 1918 and 1944, when the last mounted cavalry was transitioned to motor transport.
For horses, of course, the demise of the cavalry meant the virtual end of the use of animals in active battle. (They would continue in their role as draft horses well into the 1940s, with hundreds of thousands lost in World War II by Germany alone). Animal lovers found nothing but good in the transition to motorized transport.
There were a few cavalry battles in World War 1, most of them before the U.S. AEF entered the war. Those battles illustrated the futility of using mounted soldiers in a trench warfare scenario, and not until September of 1918, two months before the war ended, were another few cavalry engagements fought.
In this section we will examine the traditional roles of the cavalry and how the use of horses to support those roles came to be obsolete.
Traditional Roles of Cavalry
In the years leading up to World War 1 the cavalry had filled three major roles in the armies of every nation: Reconnaissance, Advance Forces, and Pursuit.
First, the cavalry was the reconnaissance arm of the service.
Stealthy patrols well ahead of the main force discovered enemy positions and strength, guiding the advance of the rest of the army.
Sabre-carrying French cavalry observe an airplane overhead, 1916. This role was taken over by aircraft. Though limited by weather and cloud cover and vulnerable to well-placed shots from the ground, aircraft allowed visualization of the battlespace with far greater accuracy and over a far larger area than mounted troops could cover. Even the limited air power available during WW1 quickly supplanted the cavalry as the chief reconnaissance force for both sides of the conflict. The availability of field telephones and radio, although not very advanced technically, still helped to get the situation reports developed by the air patrols disseminated to decision makers on the ground and let the wider field of view of the airborne units be used to advantage.
Second, the cavalry carried mounted fighting soldiers toward the enemy and engaged him either while mounted or, in some cases, on the ground.
Cavalry soldiers from various nations still carried sabers and lances as well as rifles and expected to fight soldiers who were also mounted. The U.S. Cavalry did teach unmounted fighting as well, a tactic which had proved useful in the skirmishes along the Mexican border in the years preceding the Great War. But by the time the U.S. entered the war, none of the leading field commanders expected the cavalry to be very active in engaging the enemy either on horseback or after riding toward the enemy and then dismounting to fight.
A follow-on to this role was the taking and holding of strategic or important positions until the arrival of the main forces. Again, unless significant distance was being covered, this aspect of the use of cavalry would not be relevant.
The mounted soldier role was unsuited to both the terrain and battle conditions of the Western Front. Within months of the German invasion of Belgium and France, the battlefront had stagnated into opposing forces trying to defend land from further invasion and re-take land that had already been overrun. Trenches, originally dug as temporary cover from artillery, became long-term outposts.
British cavalry cross a trench bridge.In 1915 and 1916, French and British troops tried repeatedly to push “over the top” of the trenches and re-take land that was held by the Germans. Early on, a few of these pushes involved cavalry troops, and overall these battles were the bloodiest of the entire war. Old-style hand to hand combat and individual rifle fire were replaced by machine guns, increasingly accurate cannon, and long range guns.
Any massed forces were prime targets for enemy fire. Horse’s legs were wonderful targets for opposing forces as they crippled entire units with sprays of machine gun bullets. After months of trying, the British and French gave up their tactics of trying to regain large areas by using massed forces pushing across toward the German front lines.
Cavalry units had no place in the small furtive nightly parties that ventured into the barbed wire and shell holes of no-man’s land. These small incursions took the place of the earlier massed troop movements which had proved to be the source of tens of thousands of casualties without materially changing the location of the front.
The third major role of the cavalry was pursuit of a retreating enemy and engaging them in what was hoped to be a final battle leading to clear victory.
This role simply did not exist in Europe until the last few months of the war. There were no retreating armies on either side; all the armies were holed up in their trenches and advancing only a few feet if at all – certainly not miles.
Cavalry in the AEF
Four regiments of the U.S. cavalry, the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 15th, were deployed in Europe as part of the AEF, and engaged chiefly in remount duty.2
Sending our soldiers to war: Cavalry units parade down Fifth Avenue in New York, 30 August 1917.
Thus, the U.S. Cavalry units that served in France in 1917 and 1918 were assigned, not as fighting soldiers, but as military police (MPs), horse and mule caretakers, farriers, and stable hands. They made the best of this ignominious role but yearned to fight as they had been trained to do. This led to a series of battles in the St. Mihiel offensive over a few days in September 1918 in which the 2nd Cavalry took part as a mounted unit.
The description of these few days are a telling account of how horses were viewed as a means to an end (transport to battle); how the well-being of the animals was at best a second- or third-rate concern; and how men who longed to fight rather than be assigned to remount duty let their desire for action overrule any other concern in order to take an active part in the fighting of one of the last offensives of the war.
The tale was published in The Cavalry Journal in July 1921, written by Captain Ernest N. Harmon, 2nd Cavalry.3
The Cavalry Journal first began publication in 1895, and by 1920 was the oldest of the service journals, its length of publication exceeding in fact that of all of the other service magazines put together.4 It had taken a two-year hiatus from 1918-1920, and the reappearance of the Journal was lauded by its own editorial team as signifying “the refulgence of the cavalry light which for five years has remained obscured by the fog of trenches, wire entanglements, dugouts, raids, hand grenades, trench mortars, and all of the other paraphernalia brought into the military game by the peculiar situation on the Western Front.”5
This is a telling viewpoint, for it reveals how much the leadership of the cavalry, let alone the average soldier, wanted to believe that the Great War was an aberration, something that would never happen again, rather than the harbinger of a new form of warfare.
Granted, an entrenched stalemate did not become the norm, but the old battlefield in which troops moved at the speed of animal power was never to be seen again on any large scale, and even on small scales became rare within two decades of the end of World War 1. But seeing this as a pattern of the future was clearly not possible for those who still looked back to the U.S. Civil War as the last “typical” engagement and who longed for the old ways to reassert themselves.
From the 2nd Cavalry in France, a total of fourteen officers and 404 men were formed into four Troops in mid-September 1918. By mid-October there were only 150 “mounted effectives” left, and the unit was withdrawn from the front. 6
A Last Engagement
What follows is a summary of Captain Harmon’s first-person account of the role of the 2nd Cavalry in the St. Mihiel offensive.
The cavalry troops received about two weeks’ notice of the intent to involve the unit as a mounted cavalry in the fighting. Having been busy prior to this time with the construction of a remount depot, they quickly requisitioned horses of their own to ride into battle. Of course there were not any actual cavalry mounts available, only officer’s mounts and draft horses, since the AEF had not used cavalry up to that point as a fighting force.
They received horses in “very poor condition from various remount depots and veterinary hospitals, ranging in type from heavy draft horses to a Spanish pony; forty-two were white or gray.” This last was a reference to the long-held opinion that white or gray horses were quite undesirable as mounts or indeed as war horses in any capacity, because they were too visible to the enemy.
“With men who had not drilled for six months, with horses scarcely bridle-wise and utterly unaccustomed to cavalry weapons, the officers and men had a problem as difficult, perhaps, as any cavalryman can expect. The horses were grazed in the evening and everything was done to prepare them for the hard work to come.”
Everything, that is, except the time for even minimal training and conditioning. Horses were war materiel, not viewed much if any differently than inanimate war supplies such as saddles or wagons.
Due to a shortage of ammunition, a total of fifteen or twenty shots were taken while mounted as part of accustoming the horses to their new role.
On the first night of the battle, they marched all night along a crowded road in pouring rain and spent the next day re-shoeing and overhauling equipment. The horses were tied to picket lines. It was September, and horses often prefer to stand in summer rain rather than under cover, so this was probably not as bad for the horses as for the men.
The next night they moved closer to the front, which was in fact rapidly moving away from them toward the German border as the German troops retreated. Action began that night at 1 AM, after about a 5 hour march in the rain. At that point, only the infantry was involved in fighting and the men stood by their horse’s heads to keep them from shying and bolting at the barrage of gunfire around them. This was all friendly fire, from the Allied troops, with no incoming fire.
When it became apparent that the horses were tolerating the noise and flashes, the men laid down, tied the reins to their legs, and most fell into an exhausted sleep.
The German forces continued to retreat ahead of the Allied fire, and the following day, September 12, the Cavalry was sent forward, following tanks and infantry and the retreating German troops.
They “crossed the ruins of trenches with great difficulty.” Moving further forward, “the road was choked with artillery and ambulances and we were forced to pick our way through barbed wire entanglements and trenches. Our tanks had plowed their way through the wire, which greatly helped our advance.”An early color photograph of the devastated landscape in France.
At this point, the troops entered a woodland and began to intercept German soldiers who had been separated from their units during the retreat. Sporadic fighting ensured and the lack of training of the cavalry unit began to tell, as smaller groups became separated, orders confused, and any possibility of surprising the remaining German forces was lost.
The U.S. troops came under machine gun fire in “woods so heavy that the enemy could not be seen.” While trying to retreat to a better position a few hundred yards back, the inexperience of the troops became apparent as they passed German troops without knowing they had done so and were surrounded. “They [the Germans] had been trained to shoot low. Many of our horses were hit in the legs.”
U.S. forces shot back at the machine guns with their pistols, several U.S. troopers were killed, and the remaining horses bolted. However, remarkably, the pistol fire did kill the machine gun crew and, after the horses reached the edge of the wood, they were brought under control and order restored. The soldiers were tremendously encouraged by their ability to kill the enemy with pistols and morale was high.
A U.S. soldier looking for snipers in the ruins of Montfaucon, France, October 1918.The next day, September 13, another part of the cavalry troop spent an exhausting day in rough terrain searching out German stragglers. Horses and men were worn out though few Germans were found. The remaining troops were sent on similar expeditions but over less challenging terrain. They went from village to village, routing out a few remaining Germans. Several of the towns were deserted and in flames.
“All along the road were wagons of loot and supplies left in the flight, the drivers having unhitched the horses and made their escape on them.”
Finally a larger town, St. Maurice, was reached.
“This town was of considerable size, and many Germans were seen running about in the streets as we approached. The troop galloped through the town, established a march outpost at the far side, and sent smaller patrols to search for Germans. A German staff officer, mounted on a large black horse, was discovered leaving a side street. He was captured and the captain of the troop took the horse and rode him the rest of the campaign. Twenty-two stragglers were found and sent to the rear. The villagers came out of their cellars and were enthusiastic over our entry.”
On the 14th, a large quantity of grain and food were found. Men and horses were fed and grain bags filled. This was the first feed for the horses since the morning of the 12th. By that evening, the fighting was over. “All the horses were greatly fatigued, and some wounded horses had to be shot.”
And so ended the most significant U.S. Cavalry engagement of the First World War. It is not recorded how many horses died in the fighting or had to be destroyed due to injury or exhaustion.
Many well-known officers went on record to say that the cavalry was worth the great cost to maintain it, that it could never be fully replaced by aircraft or motor vehicles, and so on. Among them was Major-General Leonard Wood, who declared in 1920 that, among other things, the cavalryman must know how to use his saber.7
Rash predictions were made as to the future of tanks. “Aviation and radio-telegraphy will … greatly increase the value of cavalry…but as for gas and tanks, their use will be restricted to siege operations or to the kind of warfare that the present war brought about, but which will hardly ever occur again.” And, “As for tanks, their invention has no effect whatsoever on the future of cavalry.”8
A young cavalry officer, Major George S. Patton Jr., wrote in 1921, “Cavalry, now as always, must advance by enveloping. When the ground, as in France, was so limited as to prevent this, cavalry must await the breakthrough to be made by the tanks. However, Western Europe is the only country small enough and with sufficient population and roads to render such a state of things possible….. Cavalry has lived off the country and can yet do so. To it, lines of supply are unnecessary. 9
This would have been news to the quartermasters who struggled to import and distribute the hundreds of thousands of tons of hay and grain necessary for the horses and mules that served in France!
Patton, a cavalry officer, Olympic pentathlon competitor, and passionate horseman, is best remembered in equestrian circles for his part in the rescue of the Lipizzaner mares and stallions from advancing Russian and German armies late in World War II. As commander of the U.S. Third Army in Europe, he made the Lipizzaner horses wards of the U.S. Army until they could be returned safely to Austria after the war, thus saving the breed and Vienna's Spanish Riding School.
Lt. George Patton competing in the 1912 Olympic pentathlon. His position is very different from the classic cavalry seat taught at the time, which would have had him much more upright, taking significant support from the reins. This would have resulted in the horse's head being pulled up, with a hollow back and dangling legs. Patton shows complete harmony with his mount, with a secure seat that does not require support from the reins, which show the barest hint of slack. The horse is jumping with perfect form as he clears this wide obstacle.
Schemes for buildup of the cavalry were put forward in great detail. Recognition that there were issues that needed attention and modernization included the observation that “We are orphans” and that the remedy would be to appoint a Chief of Cavalry. “We have no doctrine of tactics.” – solution, the Chief of Cavalry and establishment of a Cavalry Tactical School. “We do not agree as to armament.” – for instance, rifle vs carbine; machine guns, automatic rifles, saber, pistol, and bayonet. “Horse equipment is in a most demoralized state.” – remedy, “Find out what we want and have enough;…Learn how to take care of equipment.” “Improvement in the care and training of animals.” “We know too little about gas warfare.” “Our dismounted tactics are not suitable for employment against a modern enemy.” And finally, “We oppose each other in Cavalry matters and mill around in a circle, with no one to make definite and final decisions.”10
Asking these hard questions, and the good fortune of having twenty-five years before the Army was called to defend U.S. interests again, led to the cavalry of World War II and eventually the present, an armored force without horses but with the modern equivalent of mounted mobility.
- “A Message to the Cavalry from General Pershing,” The Cavalry Journal, Volume XXIX, No. 119, April 1920.
- Stubbs, Mary Lee and Connor, Stanley Russell. Armor Cavalry Part I: Regular Army and Army Reserve. Office of the Chief of Military History, Unites States Army, Washington, DC 1969. p.39.
- “The Second Cavalry In the St. Mihiel Offensive,” The Cavalry Journal, Volume XXX, No. 124, July 1921, pp. 282-289. The summary of this article follows and each quote will not be cited separately.
- “The Cavalry Journal Reappears,” The Cavalry Journal, Volume XXIX, No. 119, April 1920, p. 81.
- Ibid, Cavalry Journal XXIX p. 81.
- Urwin, Gregory J.W. The United States Cavalry An Illustrated History. 1983, Blandford Press, Poole, Dorset, UK, p. 180.
- Cavalry Journal, Vol XXIX, July 1920, p. 114.
- Tittinger, A.J., First Lieutenant, 6th Cavalry. “The Future of Cavalry.” Cavalry Journal, Vol XXIX, April 1920, p. 67-69.
- “Comments on Cavalry Tanks,” Cavalry Journal, Vol XXX, Number 122, January 1921.
- Eltinge, Le Roy, Major, U.S. Army. “Review of Our Cavalry Situation.” Cavalry Journal, Vol XXIX, April 1920, pp. 14-17.
Serving In Harness: Pulling, Hauling, and Packing
"The Mule is Dead; Long Live the Auto Truck”
blared the front page headline of the “New York Tribune Magazine”
on Sunday, June 25, 1916.
“Gasoline Spells Extinction Not only for the Army Mule but, Perhaps, for the Cavalry Branch of the Service – Mexican Desert or Mountain Pass, the Auto Truck Goes Anywhere a Mule or a Horse Can Go, and Gets There in Half the Time.” 1
French tanks share the road with horses.
Despite the blithe assumptions about gasoline power in 1915 and 1916, by the time the U.S. entered the war in 1917, it was clear that gasoline powered vehicles were not up to the test in the battle environment.
The majority of horses and mules in the war wore a harness and pulled – guns, wagons, ambulances, field kitchens, water tanks – anything that needed to be moved, was moved by horse/mule power.
By the end of the war there were indeed some very large tanks, a harbinger of things to come. But for most of the war, trucks, tanks, and their future were imagined by only a very few. Here, a British Mark V tank in 1918.
A British ambulance in the mud at Helles.
A U. S. ammunition wagon train paused for rest, 1918.
Pulling Wagons, Water Tanks, Field Kitchens, and Everything Else
The horses that worked behind the main lines were usually assigned to the Quartermasters Corps, that is the group in charge of all supplies and deliveries. Their work was still dangerous, and equally as heavy as that done by the gun horses.
The caisson wagons of Company E, March 27, 1918
These horses paid the ultimate price: a U.S. supply train after an aerial bombing attack.
U.S. cannon en route to the front, Revigny, France, May 15, 1918.Artillery horses were usually harnessed six to a gun. The guns were single-barrel, single shot weapons that fired shells of various sizes, from six pounds to nearly 2000 pounds, though there were few of the very large guns.
While a gun was being moved, most of the work would be done at a trot if the terrain permitted, though in active battle conditions if a gun needed to be moved quickly, the horses would be asked to canter or gallop. Depending on the size of the gun, most of these horses were of the light draft category, often draft crosses, and the most common American farm horse of the day. These were versatile animals that could, if necessary, pull quite effectively at a gallop if the distance was not too long.
A 13-pounder bounces across a field with the team at a gallop, October 1918.Each gun had two wheels permanently attached to it, with a tongue that protruded from the rear and that could be attached to a limber, that is, a platform over two wheels. With the limber attached, this made a four-wheeled vehicle for transporting the gun, which was pulled backward with the limber in the front and the gun in back. A restored U.S. limber with saddles and harness for a four-horse hitch. 3
The limber usually also included an ammunition chest, some water buckets, and other supplies.
When the gun was in use it was removed from the limber, which remained nearby so that the ammunition could be accessed.
Artillerymen could sit on the box on the limber when it was being pulled, but they did not drive the horses from there.
Rather, one horse in each pair was ridden, so with a six horse team, there would be three riders who controlled the horses’ speed and direction.
A similar arrangement involved a limber and a caisson, another two-wheeled vehicle that carried extra ammunition, and was also pulled by six horses. The caissons remained at the rear of the battle line and re-supply ammunition was carried to the front, often by pack horses. Click for more about animal-drawn vehicles.
A British gun team.Larger guns required more and larger horses. The 5-ton Whitworth gun required a team of 12 horses. Heavy draft horses are not effective movers at more than a trot, and actually many pull most of their loads at a walk. Their conformation, that is, body build, is not suited to the faster gaits and they tire quickly, even though they may have very good stamina at a walk pulling a heavy load.
Even ten years after the war ended, the use of horses was still assumed to be necessary for off-road operations. A Quarter Master Corps officer wrote,
“Machine guns are not placed near the broad highways as a rule, but rather are concealed in the rocky ravines, in farmyards and woods. It is only the horse or mule that can guarantee to take the guns quietly and surely into such positions, many of which are difficult even for men to reach without the use of their hands.”
The same writer goes on:
“Divisional artillery, too, must be able to emplace off the roads. It must be able to get through mud and water with the same degree of certainty as the infantryman whom it supports. It frequently goes in position far forward in the combat zone at night when the noise of tractors would betray its presence. It must be able, when occasion demands, to march economically at the slow rate of the infantry, 2 ½ miles per hour. Motors cannot meet these specifications, and the demand is for horses.”2
In the first two years of the war, 1914 – 1916, the U.S. had a policy of strict neutrality and thus, American newsmen covering the war could interview German army personnel and report the news as easily as they could from a British or French source. The Cavalry Journal reported such a conversation in its January 1916 issue:
“A German officer expressed himself to an American reporter as follows:
“The horse is absolutely necessary at the front to haul heavy ordnance into position. Our tractors are excellent, but we keep now always horses in reserve. While I have seen horses trembling from the smell of blood or the sight of other horses disemboweled and writhing in agony on the ground, those in harness keep enough will power and courage to perform the heaviest work with the utmost assistance to the men. I am not a horseman, but I have learned to respect the horse for his behavior in this war, and they are treated by us as comrades.”Riders and horses approach dead horses next to a road near Ypres.
The German horses to which he refers must have been well trained and well treated, for there is no other explanation for their obedience in the face of such fearful sights. The Germans had a long tradition of classical training and horsemanship, and its value was borne out in what the non-horseman officer observed. There were, of course, stories of mistreatment of horses by German troops as well, but in this case, the behavior of the horses reflected well on their training and handing.
Gun horses were present on the battlefield at all times - they did not retreat to the rear lines at night. They were cared for by the artillerymen themselves, and horse care came before getting a meal or rest for the men. All the fighting corps had cooks assigned to them, and the field kitchens were hauled by horses assigned to that division. Water tanks, for supplying men and animals, also belonged to each division.
In his monumental study of the daily lives of soldiers in the Great War, Richard S. Faulkner has this to say about artillerymen:
A U.S. machine gun company on the way to the front, 1918.“Much of the artilleryman’s unremitting toil was dedicated to the care and feeding of his unit’s draft animals. When it came to horses and mules, the problem for the artillerymen was one of scale. At full strength, an infantry regiment contained sixty-five horses and 325 mules while a field artillery regiment had 1,163 horses and 162 mules. For the infantry, this equaled one draft animal for roughly every ten soldiers in the regiment, while a light field artillery regiment (with 75mm guns) had one horse or mule for every 1.2 men.
"Furthermore, the infantrymen could still perform their missions if their units grew short of draft animals, but this was not the case for the artillery. Having this many animals meant that the care and feeding of horses and mules occupied much of the artillerymen’s lives in and out of battle. For the most part, the infantryman looked after himself, his personal equipment, and his small arms.
Private First Class Frank Gilmore with his artillery unit horses.
"The artillerymen were stuck in a steady cycle of hauling forage and water, grooming the animals, mucking out the horse line, maintain the tack, saddles, guns, and caissons, and then taking care of himself, his personal equipment, and small arms. By regulation, the needs to the draft animals came before those of the soldiers. After artillery units were pulled from the line for rest and refit, the care of their animals still remained a top priority for the troops.5
A horse-drawn horse field ambulance with an injured horse being loaded. Note how one foreleg is being held in the air while the hind leg is being bandaged, a precaution against the horse kicking the man who is working on the injured rear leg.Field ambulances for both men and horses were pulled by horses. Through the ancient code of battlefield honor, vehicles bearing a red cross were not attacked, though the men or animals being carried inside the ambulances might have been under fire only minutes before.
U.S. pack horses carrying shells.Pack animals might be either horses or mules, but were smaller than other animals because it was easier to load a smaller animal than to hoist a pack onto a tall back.
Their work often involved moving supplies from a dump point at the rear of the front lines, to a point forward, sometimes right to the edge of the trenches. They might move anything from ammunition to hot soup to wounded men.A British horse is led through mud while carrying the bodies of dead soldiers.
.French soldiers lead horses loaded with bread near Verdun.
There was a severe shortage of all horses and mules, but the shortage was most acute in the pack animal category. Whether this was because trench warfare relied more heavily on packing than what was planned for, or whether the numbers planned for would never have been adequate in any battle scenario, is not clear.
But the pack animals had a particularly difficult job because they often moved cross country through the worst mud, picking their way one at a time rather than in a larger company.
When looking at photos of horses and mules at work, the sheer numbers of animals becomes apparent. All of them had difficult lives at least part of their time in France, with insufficient food, no shelter, inexperienced caretakers, and heavy workloads.
No animal lover can mourn the passing of the era of the war horse.
- McGeehan, W.O. “New York Tribune Magazine.” Monday, June 25, 1916, Part V, p.1.
- Gerow, Captain Louis B., Q.M.C. ”The Use of Horses And Mules In Modern Warfare.” The Quartermaster’s Review, November-December 1928, p. 21-22.
- Photo courtesy of Ralph Lovett, Lovett Artillery Collection, www.lovettartillery.com.
- Schwarzkopf, Olaf.,, Veterinarian Third Cavalry. “The Changed Status of the Horse in War.” The Cavalry Journal, volume XXVI, No. 109, January 1916.
- Faulkner, Richard S. Pershing’s Crusaders, The American Solder in World War I., University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2017, p. 497.