War Horses

Gas mask for a horse

Gas mask for a horse

“The greatness of a nation can be judged by how its animals are treated.”   – Mahatma Gandhi

My husband and I finally got around to watching the movie, War Horse, the other night. I should say we started it. We’d read the Michael Morpugo children’s novel by the same name years ago and both enjoyed it, so we were looking forward to the movie. Unfortunately, we were pretty put off by the corniness of the first hour and just couldn’t get past it. My husband has a team of Canadian horses that do a lot of work around the farm so we know a little bit about horses. Instead of showing the bond that builds between a human and a horse through the hours and hours of patient training (on both sides), the movie portrayed the process of horse training as a quick chat, nose to nose, and then the horse does whatever the person wants. We actually laughed out loud during the plowing scene, it was so silly. Anyway, the point of this post is not to beat on a Hollywood movie (an easy thing to do), but to talk about the real war horses of WWI.

It’s hard to believe that a war relying so heavily on shells, gas, machine guns and new technological weaponry, also relied so heavily on the horse. While many cavalry officers believed almost to the end that charging on a horse into enemy territory was still the means to win the war, the main benefit of the horses was their ability to pull heavy machinery, wagons, and supplies through the muddy, pitted roads and terrain on both sides of the front. At least they got that part right in the movie; it wasn’t cavalry horses they needed in the war, but strong and sturdy draft horses to do the heavy pulling.

Me with Indy a few years ago.

Indy giving me a tickle a few years ago.

Not only did these horses have to do heavy work day in and day out, they also had to deal with loud noises, shell blasts, machine gun fire, gas, and the horrible smells of death and destruction all around them. It’s heartbreaking to think of these beautiful and sensitive animals put through such misery and fear with no understanding or having no choice in the matter. Our horse, Indy (right), used to get spooked by an orange bucket out of place. He wouldn’t have done well on the front.

There was a serious shortage of horses throughout the war. About a million came from the U.S. even before we entered into the fighting. Providing fodder at the front was both a logistical and supply problem, and more horses died from disease, overwork, and poor nutrition than from shelling and machine gun fire. No one knows the exact death toll, but clearly many millions were killed which is why there were never enough horses. The need for more war horses left a shortage of work horses on the home front, and so accelerated the rapid transformation of the early 20th century from animal power to machine power on farms.

WWI spurred a dramatic shift toward a technological mindset throughout the world, even in my own family. In some of my great Uncle Harry’s letters from France, he talked and worried about his horses and bees. His sister, Esther (my grandmother), took to driving the team and tending his hives while he was in France.  Not surprising then, that she was the one who stayed on as a farmer after the war. Harry moved to Jamestown, a small city in western New York, where he worked in a tool factory, leaving behind forever his horses and farming ways.