'War Horse' and the Great War's equine holocaust
In the climactic scene of “War Horse,” a young British soldier’s appeal stops a battlefield veterinarian from destroying a shell-shocked and wounded horse named Joey that has been rescued from No Man’s Land.
There’s high drama in the miraculous reunion of that irrepressible thoroughbred and the boy who had raised him – a thrilling plot that earned “War Horse” a Tony award for best drama on Broadway and a best picture nomination in this year’s Academy Awards.
But the upbeat endings of the stage play and the film tend to trivialize the disturbing, at times gruesome sequel that the European and U.S. armies staged for the vast majority of war horses following the devastating end of World War I.
It’s true that some fortunate horses – epitomized by Joey in “War Horse” – were shipped home or auctioned off, mainly to French and Belgian farmers who over-worked them to make up for the post-war shortage of such animals. One of the few U.S. war horses to return was Kidron, the stallion prized by Missouri-born Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force.
But most of the horses and mules that survived the war – having escaped the battlefield wounds, exposure, disease or starvation that killed an estimated 8 million animals – were flayed, butchered, rendered and sold for their hides, fat or meat. Their reward for enduring gunfire, poison gas and mud was to be rendered into school glue or served at French dinner tables.
“A good market for horse flesh fit for human food was found” in France and Belgium, says the official war history of the British Veterinary Service, noting the high demand for military contracts “with approved firms of butchers in Paris.”
Army Waste Products Ltd., a military trading company appointed by Britain’s Army Council, took over the disposal of horse carcasses. And when a meat shortage struck in England, officials set up a system to sell horsemeat in London and Liverpool. “The plan worked well, and it became possible to dispose of large numbers of otherwise worthless animals at prices which varied between 9 Pounds and 12 Pounds,” said a post-war report.
The veterinary and remount services, which had made heroic efforts to prevent the spread of disease among war horses, also developed efficient ways to dispose of injured, sick or aging horses, culminating in “horse carcass economizers” – slaughterhouse factories built near areas where such “useless” animals were destroyed.
Among British Army horses, reports indicate, nearly 100,000 were slaughtered, including some 57,000 horses before the war’s end and about 40,000 afterward.
And most of those war horses weren’t “British” at all, but exports from North America. That included tens of thousands of horses sold to British remount officers at the East St. Louis and Kansas City stockyards, as well as from the massive Guyton & Harrington Mule Co. of Lathrop, Mo. – the “mule capital of the world,” which at its peak corralled 40,000 horses and mules at a time.
On Guyton & Harrington’s 6,000 acres of pastureland were what some locals called the “mule palace” – the world’s largest horse barns, stretching a city block long and half a block wide. Guyton had convinced the British remount service to locate one of its main animal depots in the town. Making money hand over fist from the Allied army sales, the company built an artificial lake to water the animals, hired 400 workers and got three railroads – the Santa Fe, the Rock Island and the Burlington lines – to lay track into the small town to transport animals.
Most of the British-bought animals were shipped by rail to a British depot at the port of Newport News, Va., where German saboteurs tried to infect the horses with anthrax and the equine disease glanders in the corrals. From Newport News alone, 457,000 horses and mules were shipped to the Allied armies during the war.
In all, more than three quarters of a million North American horses and mules were transported to the Great War’s battlefields, including about 182,000 animals that accompanied the American Expeditionary Force to Europe.
In the end, only a few hundred of those horses ever returned home.
Machine guns, Truman and mounted cavalry
In “War Horse,” the gallant British captain who rides Joey into an early cavalry charge is killed in a machine-gun attack. The horse survives, although more mounts than riders were toppled in many of the Great War’s cavalry skirmishes.
Take the case of the German cavalry charge at Haelen, Belgium, on Aug. 12, 1914. On that day, German Uhlans, Dragoons, Hussars and Kurassiers – cavalry and mounted artillery units – rode into a barrage of shrapnel and shell fire. At least 150 German riders and more than 400 horses lost their lives.
“I have never heard a horse scream [before now] and I can hardly believe it,” said a soldier in Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war classic, “All Quiet on the Western Front.” “There is a whole world of pain in that sound, creation itself under torture, a wild and horrifying agony.”
Later in the war, after old-fashioned cavalry charges were abandoned in favor of trench warfare, more horses died as a result of exposure (to the elements and to gas attacks) and disease as from gunfire. Even so, U.S. forces, which did not even engage on the front until 1918, lost 63,369 horses and mules – out of 182,000 – during the war.
Some of those horses were lost in a mounted artillery unit commanded by U.S. Army Capt. Harry S Truman, whose father had been a horse and mule dealer in Lamar, Mo. In August 1918, Truman barely escaped serious injury when German artillery fire toppled his horse, pinning down Truman in a shell hole.
The Missourian extricated himself from under the hapless horse and rallied the other Battery D soldiers, who all survived. But two of the unit’s horses were killed outright and another pair of horses was so badly wounded that they had to be shot.
Truman, of course, went on to become president, and his 1948 inaugural parade featured a four-mule hitch from Lamar that lumbered down Pennsylvania Avenue. The name of his Army horse is lost to history, as are the identities of nearly all of the millions of horses, mules and donkeys that were lost during the war – temporarily decimating the equine populations of much of Europe and even parts of North America.
In the European part of Russia alone, the official horse census declined by nearly 9 million between 1913 and 1922. The Germans and the French each lost well over a million horses, some of that loss is attributable to factors other than the war. Before the war began, Germany had about 4.5 million horses; that declined to 3.2 million by the war’s end. It took years before the population again reached pre-war levels.
Despite the shortages, some war horses were so badly injured or exhausted that no one wanted them. The British Army remount service’s “Disposal of Animals Branch” disposed of 64,334 unwanted horses during the war, of which about 45,000 were sold to French “horse butchers” but only 7,775 sold to farmers. Another 39,945 war horses and mules were butchered or turned into by-products by the “horse carcass economizers” during the four months between the Armistice and the end of March 1919.
After the war ended, the British veterinary service had classified surviving horses in France into several categories, including a group returned to England for sale. However, good horses in other theaters of war, such as the Middle East, could not be repatriated to England and some could not be sold locally.
“The unfortunate consequence was that, after every available channel of useful [horse] disposal had been explored, there remained in some theaters of war a surplus of serviceable animals which could only be destroyed,” explained one report.
Outcry over suffering led to animal welfare advances
Mahatma Ghandi – who as a young man had witnessed horrible losses of both humans and horses in the South African War – said years later: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
In the case of the Great War and its horses, that judgment would be harsh. But the public outcry about the suffering of horses during the Great War spurred a worldwide animal welfare movement that sought to improve their deplorable conditions.
After tens of thousands of animals were killed on European battlefields during the war's first months, an international group met in Geneva to form the Blue Cross animal relief organization, which provided horse ambulances and other assistance to wounded animals on the battlefields. Separately, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals helped build and equip horse hospitals with private contributions.
The Blue Cross, founded in Britain under the aegis of Our Dumb Friends' League, supplied drugs, veterinary equipment and horse comforts. In 1916, the American Humane Society established its Red Star animal relief operation. That fund sent medical supplies, bandages, and ambulances to the front lines to helps vets treat injured horses.
During the battle of the Somme there was uproar in England over the sale of unwanted army horses to French farmers, who were alleged to be unfit to look after them. The sale of exhausted horses and mules to Egyptians who mistreated them also led to an outcry.
And, a la “War Horse,” there were some happy endings. Gen. Pershing arranged for his stallion Kidron – which he rode in the Allied victory parade in Paris in 1919 – to be shipped back to Virginia, where the famous horse lived peacefully until 1942.
An artillery-gun team of black horses, “The Old Blacks,” was returned to England after the war and honored with the task of transporting the coffin of the Unknown Soldier in a caisson to Westminster Abbey for burial. The horse team was retired in 1926 and its members lived the rest of their lives on green pastures.
Two years after the Great War’s end, the U.S. Army’s former cavalry chief, Gen. Willard A. Holbrook, dedicated a bronze tablet donated by Red Star to honor the American horses that had died. He described those animals “as indispensable to the successful prosecution of the war and to final victory as were shot and shell.”
Holbrook said the horses that had died on the European battlefields “passed to the great beyond in silent agony, and while many of them now sleep on the gentle slopes made beautiful by the poppy's bloom, no white crosses, row on row, mark their last resting places.”
And 85 years after the war’s end, Princess Anne dedicated the Animals in War Memorial in London in 2004. War horses and other animals are sculpted in bas-relief along a curved wall and two life-size bronze mules, carrying heavy military packs, struggle up the steps towards a gap in the wall.
The inscription, carved in the marble, reads: “They had no choice."
Robert Koenig spent months researching the transport, injuries and fate of the horses and mules in World War I at the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Missouri Historical Society and the Smithsonian Institution for his book, “The Fourth Horseman.”