The war horse is often thought of simply as an officer’s mount or a cavalry charger. However the role of Army horses in the First World War was much more varied. Emma Mawdsley, Head of Collections Development and Review at the National Army Museum explains more. First published in Carriage Driving November 2018

In 1900, virtually every vehicle in London was horse-drawn and it took 300,000 horses to keep the city moving. Until 1914 around 2.8 million draught horses were employed in farming in Britain. As well as pulling a plough, horses were seen throughout the country pulling everything from omnibuses and trams to milk floats.

Between 1914 and 1918 the success of the British war effort was totally dependent on horses. Riding horses were used in the cavalry and as officers’ mounts. Small but strong multipurpose horses and ponies carried shells and ammunition. Draught horses switched from buses to pulling heavy artillery guns or supply wagons. Britain’s Remount Department spent £67.5 million (about £3 billion in today’s money) on purchasing, training and delivering horses and mules to the front. The British Army employed over 368,000 horses on the Western Front by 1917 and the vast majority of these were draught or pack animals rather than cavalry horses.

A new type of war saw men live for months in trenches instead of fighting on the move. Often the mud was so thick motor vehicles could not drive through it. It was left to horses to pull the large artillery guns and ambulances, and bring in supplies of medicine, food and ammunition. But not enough of Britain’s horses were fit for Army use, so large numbers had to be purchased from abroad. Canada sent about 130,000 horses overseas during the First World War.

At the outbreak of war, the artist Alfred Munnings was frustrated that he was deemed unfit to serve in the Army due to an accident, which had left him blind in one eye. In 1917, keen to contribute to the war effort, he volunteered to work with the Army Remount Service, assessing and treating imported Canadian horses for mange. However, his love of horses was soon to find a more worthy outlet. In the spring of 1918, Munnings was commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook’s Canadian War Memorials Fund to paint the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France.

With his vibrant brushstrokes Munnings captured the play of light on the gleaming, groomed horses of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. Sometimes just a mile behind the front line, and in full view of the enemy, he painted the lines of perfectly groomed horses, their clipped coats shining in the sunlight. However, as the Germans advanced inexorably across France, in April 1918 he was moved out of danger to paint the Canadian Forestry Corps in Normandy and then the Jura region.

Munnings’s views of the timber mills and the horses and animals in the surrounding landscape depict the tranquil, pastoral idyll that the Allies were fighting for. The Forestry Corps did invaluable work supplying the timber that lined trenches and shelters for men, animals and supplies. It also provided the duckboards that enabled the Allies to traverse the shell-scarred and often muddy landscape, and the railway sleepers for the narrow-gauge railways that kept the allies supplied with munitions and stores, transported troops and evacuated the wounded. Each forestry company had a team of 120 horses and there was great rivalry as to which team kept their horses in the best condition.

Alfred Munnings’ paintings of the Canadian Expeditionary Force have not been displayed together in Europe since 1919, so the Exhibition at the National Army Museum is a timely opportunity to revisit them. The collection commemorates Canada’s very significant contribution and sacrifice in support of the Allied cause.

The First World War cost the lives of some 60,000 Newfoundlanders and Canadians, almost ten per cent of those who served in the conflict. The pictures also record the contribution of the Canadian horses to the war effort. At the end of the First World War there were public demands that the horse heroes should be treated with respect. However, the Army had far more horses than it needed in peacetime. Around 500,000 horses were sold for work, about 100,000 of these in Britain. Due to public concern that some Europeans, Egyptian and Middle Eastern owners did not look after horses properly, all buyers had to be investigated. The War Office promised that unwanted horses would be destroyed rather than sold on to cruel owners. Sadly, some 61,000 horses that were not fit for work were sold for meat.

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First published in Carriage Driving November 2018