From War Horse to Veteran

As the First World War ended, so too did the British Army’s requirement for the hundreds of thousands of horses and mules that served within its ranks. With no war, the war horse in his many roles, was made redundant.

After the Armistice, the challenge of what to do with these now obsolete animals on the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East, loomed large. The process of equine demobilisation was in many ways, far more complex than that of the soldier due to the unique position the horse occupied as neither an inanimate tool of warfare or a serviceman with rights and entitlements. Instead, the war horse existed in a hazy position between the two, a sentient military instrument.

The Army Veterinary Corps was responsible for ‘casting’ – the process of selling/disposing of animals no longer fit for, or required, for service. The primary concern for the army at this stage was not the welfare of the horses, but the potential to recoup a small fraction of the £67 million that had been spent on remounts for the British Army throughout the war. This approach, which treated horses as a commodity, with no room for sentimentality, sat uncomfortably with many soldiers and the public. Indeed, the process of casting in the post war period, would have a huge impact on how the war horse would come to be viewed.

The fate of a horse was based on its age and soundness. Once classified, it was branded and generally either:

  • Repatriated for sale in Britain
  • sold to the local population for work
  • sold to the local population for food
  • destroyed and sold for by-products

By February 1919 the AVC had reduced the number of horses on the Western Front from 326,286 to just 20,004. The process of casting caused deep distress to some officers and soldiers. For men who had formed close bonds with their horses, to be separated from them and see them treated solely as a commodity was difficult to accept: 

It seemed awfully sad that these poor old faithful creatures, after suffering from thirst, hunger and fatigue and carrying heavy loads for hundreds of miles, should have to end their days by being shot down by the very people they had so faithfully served

Trooper Ted Andrews (from Terry Kinlock, Devils on Horses)

The moral ambiguities over casting caused most upset in the Middle East, where a different equine culture prevailed along with different standards of animal welfare. This, along with a degree of racial bias, led to more vocal protestations about the army’s casting process. 

It was highly likely that a better life awaited the 95,000 or so animals that were classified to be repatriated to Britain. As debates on casting continued, the status of a number of these repatriated horses was elevated, and they became viewed not as a tool of warfare, but veterans – an emotional social response perhaps to the Army’s perceived treatment of the horses as a mere commodity. 

An example of this Great War equine hero phenomenon is ‘The Old Blacks’. This was the nickname given to a team of black Royal Horse Artillery gun horses who served for the duration of the war. The horses were stabled at St John’s Wood Barracks and posted to J Battery with whom they left for France as part of the original BEF in 1914. At least two of their Drivers looked after their designated pair of horses throughout the war, undoubtably forming close bonds with the animals. In his 1933 book, Peter Shaw Baker wrote that the Old Blacks served across the Western Front from Ypres to St.Quentin, taking part in ‘the retreat and advance on 1914, the first and second Battles of Ypres, Festubert, Aubers Ridge, Vimy Ridge, the Somme, Hill 70, Cambrai and the retreat and ultimate advance of 1918’

The Old Blacks: Parading at St. John’s Wood Barracks

The story of their resilience and impressive service record captured public imagination, and when they returned home they made several public appearances, including at the International Horse Show Olympia in 1920. Later that year, they were chosen to draw the carriage of the Unknown Warrior to Westminster Abbey on 11th November, a symbolic decision that provided some recognition of not just their individual contribution to the war effort, but horses’ collective role in it. 

The Old Blacks: Leading the carriage of the Unknown Warrior to Westminster Abbey

The horses shared experience of war was recognised by many of the men who fought, with animal welfare groups such as the RSPCA and Blue Cross reinforcing the concept by frequently referring to the animals as ‘comrades’ and ‘veterans’. The bond between soldier and horse during the Great War has recently been explored in depth by Jane Flynn, who had demonstrated the important influence this had on a wide range of military activities. 

The contribution of horses during the Great War and their subsequent demobilisation led to a wider shift in the perceptions of the horse’s use in modern war. By the 1930s pressure mounted on the British Government to reform casting policies, placing greater value on the welfare of the horses and their subsequent fate rather than viewing them as inanimate objects to be disposed of. The veteranisation of horses has continued to develop in the 100 years since The Old Blacks took up their symbolic position in the procession of the Unknown Warrior, and I believe there is much to learn in the change in attitudes and mythologies that surround it.

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