ANZAC Day: Remembering Fallen Warriors, Both Men & Horses


Here in Australia it is ANZAC day when the military and general populations remember the sacrifice made by so many during the First World War. However, it wasn’t just people who made the ultimate sacrifice, dogs and horses also made significant contributions and sacrifices during the Great War.

Dogs were used as rat catchers and for transporting medical supplies.

Here are some interesting facts about horses and war:

  • The role of cavalry is now largely ceremonial, as they have long since been driven from the battlefield.
  • Once the premier arm of war.
  • Horse and soldier once the shock troops of many a victorious army.
  • Last pitched battle (horse against horse) between Polish and Russian forces.
  • 40 Polish regiments rode against the German Blitzkrieg in 1939.
  • The German’s relied heavily on horses, rounding up approximately 3 million for their advancing armies during World War II.
  • During WWII, most of Germany’s support transport was horse-drawn (a significant strategic/tactical disadvantage when moving East into Russia).
  • Germany also had cavalry, the 1st Cavalry Division took part in the invasion of France in 1940 (protecting the flank and conducting reconnaissance).
  • The relationship between horse and warrior is about 3,000 years old.
  • Horses first tamed around 2,000 BC.
  • Though too small to ride, they were attached to chariots.
  • Approximately 900 BC, the first warhorses bred.
  • Among the first exponents of the cavalry revolution were the Parthians, a fierce tribe from Persia (and long time enemy of the Romans), who combined archery and horsemanship.
  • Probably the most famous of the ‘horse tribes’ is The Huns who, first under Genghis Khan, ruled a vast empire.
  • An innovation to counteract The Huns style of horse warfare was the cataphract, an armoured horse and rider.
  • The cataphract would eventually morph into what we know as the knight.
  • The Huns grew up with horse, learning to ride at the age of 3.
  • In contrast, Western peoples had to be specially trained to be horse soldiers.
  • Devices developed to turn a horse into a platform for a soldier: the bit; the bridle; the rein; the saddle; the stirrup; and the spur.
  • Knights probably give the best visualisation of (heavy) cavalry, whose total equipment could weigh up to 250 lb.
  • In the 1500s, the musket and cannon made a knights armour irrelevant.
  • Cavalry found other roles such as a final shock force (i.e. end of battle) and to run down the enemy to destruction.
  • Light cavalry – scouts and skirmishers – of an army wore no (or very little) armour, but made up for it in the splendour of their uniforms.
  • Of the 400,000/500,000 horses utilised in the Boer War (1899-1902), approximately two-thirds died.
  • Despite being at the receiving end of the deadly lessons given by the Boer Horsemen, it was considered ok to use cavalry against machineguns and rapid firing rifles during WWI.
  • In 1914, Britain went to war with approximately 10,000 cavalry, trained in the ‘new tactics’ (learnt from the Boers) of dismounted action.
  • In contrast, many French regiments were still taught to charge in the Waterloo style, with lance and sword.
  • The French mobilised 10 divisions of cavalry for WWI, the Russian had 36 divisions, the Germans had 11 divisions and the Austrians had 11 divisions – between them approximately one third of a million horses.
  • This cavalry was not only a negative quantity on the battlefield, they were also a positive drain on the war effort.
  • Horses require constant attention, watering, feeding, grooming, shoeing and exercise; which is all labour intensive.
  • Cavalry rations during WWI consisted of 10 lb of hay/grass per day and 10 lb of grain, which the British had to transport across the English Channel requiring a combination of shipping, trains and trucks that could not be used elsewhere. They also require approximately 30 litres of water per day.
  • During WWI, Britain shipped five and a quarter million tonnes of ammunition to France, against five and a half million tonnes of hay and oats.
  • Of the 900,000 horses enrolled in the British Army between 1914 and 1918, nearly one quarter died (only 60,000 were killed on the battlefield by bullet, shell or gas). Of the 130,000 horses used by the Australians, only one returned (named Sandy).
  • Just as hay and straw took up more shipping space than shells, horses took more train space than men. 250 trucks to transport an Infantry Division, 1,000 trucks to transport a Cavalry Division.
  • Despite horses and trench warfare being insoluble, Generals of all armies persisted until 1918 on finding ways to use the Cavalry against the Cavalry.
  • A Cavalry Division occupied 9 miles of road but had to be kept 10 miles behind the frontline, out of range of the enemy artillery.

Useful Links/Publications

  • Australia’s Great War Horse on ABC tonight at 6pm (1800 hours for you veterans!).
  • War Horse: Is a 2011 American war drama film directed and co-produced by Steven Spielberg from a screenplay written by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, adapted from English author Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel of the same name (an excellent film and book).
  • War Horse on Stage: Stage play adapted from the book: http://www.warhorseonstage.com/
  • Michael Morpurgo: https://www.michaelmorpurgo.com/book/war-horse/
  • Australian War Museum: https://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/horses/
  • Hardman, R. (2011) Unshakeable courage of the real War Horses: The eight million forgotten animals who were killed on the frontline. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2045816/Unshakeable-courage-real-War-Horses-The-million-forgotten-animals-killed-frontline.html. [Accessed: 24 April, 2017]. 
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