Hold your horses and check your sources

The image above is frequently circulated on social media, usually accompanied with a caption such as ‘1916 – soldiers pay tribute to the horses who died in the Great War’ which, whilst a lovely idea, is a bit of duff history I’m afraid. I’m fed up of seeing it do the rounds, so thought I’d explain a little about the real story behind the photo…

The photo is actually part of a series of shots taken by Michigan photographer, Almeron Newman. Newman was born in Portland in 1875 and began professionally taking photos in 1899. By 1918 he was living in New Mexico, where he registered for the draft for the First World War. Newman had developed a reputation as a specialist in panoramic and forced perspective photography, which suited the fashion at the time for ‘living photography’ – the technique of using people to create scenes and objects. In August 1918 he took one of his most famous photos whilst working as a military photographer at Camp Cody. Camp Cody was an Army camp in New Mexico, originally created to defend against the threat from Mexico during the First World War. It was a training camp for the National Guard, where troops received basic training before leaving for Europe and was home to the 34th Infantry Division – nicknamed the Sandstorm Division due to the camp’s desert climate.

In this rather stunning photo, Almeron captured men of the Sandstorm Division carefully arranged to form their divisional crest.

The fashion for living portraits swept America during the war (and post-war) years, as their use in patriotic propaganda was incredibly popular. The photos captured the public’s imagination and were popular too with photographers, who could charge a premium for such technically complex shots and sell multiple copies of the same image.

So, what of our famous ‘tribute to the horses of WW1’?

Well, over the years the photo has been reused and watermarked multiple times with misleading information which has perpetuated the myths surrounding it. It was actually taken by Newman at Camp Cody in January 1919 and features 650 men of the Auxiliary Remount Depot No 326 ‘in a symbolic head pose’ of a horse known only as ‘The Devil’. The Devil was the saddle horse of Maj. Frank G Brewer, the Remount Commander. The term saddle horse simply means a horse reserved for riding only and is often used to refer to a favourite mount. I have tried to find further information on Maj. Brewer without much luck. Interestingly the US National Archives has a copy of the photograph, recorded in 1921, where Brewer is referred to as Colonel Frank C Brewer, instead. In their version, there is also a photo of a horse. This was likely used by Newman to model the scene, perhaps it may even be ‘The Devil’ himself (or herself as the case may be!). In the background, one can see fabulous detail of the Remount camp with paddocks of horses stretching far into the horizon. The expression on the faces of the men can also be clearly seen.

There is no evidence to suggest this photo was taken in tribute to the millions of horses who served in the Great War, but it is a stunning photograph and gives us an insight into one of the largest remount depots in America in the immediate post war period. I only hope that in time the myth that accompanies the picture on Twitter and Facebook etc will die out and we can use the shot to bring attention to the history of Camp Cody and the interesting work of the U.S. remounts.

12 thoughts on “Hold your horses and check your sources

  1. Well researched. You are absolutely right to say that this photograph ‘does the rounds’ and is regularly incorrectly attributed. I suspect that this was happening during and shortly after the War, as I have found several that suggest it shows personnel of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, and of various Remount Depots in the UK. It has evidently become part of the Great War’s mythology. You might be interested (if you haven’t come across it already of course.) in the ‘Your Country Needs You!’ poster that never was. It is often used in TV adaptations etc. but was never actually issued during the War.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It may be well researched but not accurately written. There is no way there are 16000 men in the crest formation. Lucky if it’s even 1600 men.


  3. Reblogged this on Soldiers and their Horses and commented:
    This is a fantastic blog post warning of the perils that lie in wait for the unwary historian. Indeed, we could argue that The Great War was being mythologised even as it was happening. This is just such an example, and beautifully illustrates how events become history, and how history transforms over time. Especially in memory and in the public consciousness.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. In light of the way horses & mules today are treated like disposable trash by U.S. Bureau of Land Management, not to mention horses used by the horserace gambling business being continually crippled & killed, why would anyone want to take issue over a so-called ‘tribute’ to the 8 million who lost their lives violently, being used by humanity in 1918?


    1. I’m a historian and thus interested in the facts behind the photo. This has nothing to do with the treatment of animals today in the military or the racing industry.


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