Page 10 - Chiron Spring 2018
P. 10

   Carrying ammunition to the artillery
of sheer exhaustion or a combination of these factors and the overall harsh conditions, whilst some drowned in the deep mud after collapsing.
With few exceptions such as the retreat from Mons and the battle of Cambrai on the Western Front, the brief activity of British, Commonwealth and German Cavalry in its usual role of scouting ahead of the infantry and protecting the flanks came to an abrupt end being replaced by static warfare. The German cavalry charge at Haelen in Belgium on 12th August 1914 cost the lives of over 150 soldiers and more than 400 horse.
The devastating damage to the landscape by increasingly heavy artillery barrages that pockmarked the
battlefield with huge craters which soon became water-filled producing deep mud everywhere, due to damaged drainage systems and bad weather severely impeded any movement by soldiers on foot. Cavalry horses could no longer move rapidly over the battlefield in their usual patrols and even motorised transport became bogged down and immoveable.
Added to this was the devastating and efficient killing power of the machine-gun, used by both sides. Used tactically to hinder and deny movement across the battlefield and provide defence, its withering fire was countered by literally burying the troops on the front line below ground level by digging an almost unbelievably extensive network of trenches stretching from the north sea coast of Belgium to the Swiss border. Finally, miles of defensive barbed wire fronted both Allied and German lines. With these combined impediments to battlefield movement mounted cavalry almost immediately became redundant and horses were only of real use behind the lines in a transport role hauling supply wagons of ammunition, weapons, food, field-kitchens, cable wagons and the wounded.
Just like the soldiers they were also exposed to shellfire, air attacks, gas,
Exhausted animals collapsed and died
barbed wire and high levels of noise so that many were simply terrified. Horses and horse lines were specifically targeted by German artillery. During the Battle of Verdun in 1916, one of attrition between French and German forces, a single shot fired from a French naval gun killed 97 horses, amid a total of 7,000 horse killed by long-range shelling in single day in March.
British Army horse losses between the Somme in 1916 and the end of the war in 1918 comprised:
• 58,090 horses killed in action
• 77,410 wounded in action
• 211 actually killed in gas attacks
• 2,2000 severely injured in gas
• several hundred killed by bombs
dropped from aircraft.
The AVC was initially under-recruited
when war broke out yet soon came into its own with significantly increased numbers. It started the war with six veterinary hospitals together with the astutely formed mobile units to render immediate first aid for minor ailments, evacuation units to take serious cases out of the front line and the veterinary hospitals along the lines of communication or further in the rear to cure major disease/injuries so that fit animals could return to work.
A total of 2.5 million animals were treated with an 80% chance of being cured and thus 2 million were passed fit for further service – reflecting very highly upon the AVC and its professional standards, aided in France and at home by the significant contributions made by the Blue Cross and RSPCA; the Blue Cross staffed their own horse and dog hospitals in France whilst many RSPCA staff joined the AVC and some served abroad; they provided veterinary equipment and supplies, and numerous horse ambulances.
Special units disposed of carcases to reduce the risk of diseases in the front line as well as behind the lines.
For their part the German Army is
Blue Cross horse ambulance in France
listed with over 250 veterinary hospitals throughout the entire country that participated in WW1 with a recorded death in service rate of 27%. This contrasted with the French who were forced to acknowledge that their military veterinary services were inadequate through poor organisation and a lack of resources, and with reported death rates of 80%. Such was the poor state of the French military veterinary service overall that it was only able to show some signs of coping following the intervention of the Blue Cross which established nine veterinary hospitals in France, properly supplied and staffed, and financed by donations from the concerned public in Britain.
War being war, the Germans in East Africa cleverly retired behind the line of tsetse fly distribution, infections from which caused severe trypanosomiasis in British mounted units resulting in the loss of some 12,000 horse and mules between August and October 1916.
Horses also served in the Near East in the Sinai & Palestine Campaign where the Desert Mounted Corps had three mounted divisions of British, Australian, New Zealand, Indian and French troops with a mixture of cavalry, yeomanry, mounted infantry and horse artillery. The desert terrain was more suited to horses in general although day long cavalry patrols without water for the horses did impose a serious and unwanted strain until they returned to base, even though grain rations were carried. Two mobile veterinary sections joined in April and July 1917.
Field Marshal Allenby had 18,000 horses by the end of 1918 and although some laud the successful use of cavalry at the battles of Megiddo, Beersheba and Gaza as a justification of their value even in the dry and arid desert landscape traditional cavalry usage was being reduced and most troops fought as mounted infantry. Hardy ‘walers’ from Australia were highly regarded horses for the desert operations but even so, deaths from exhaustion, inadequate water supplies and wounds were recorded.
But what happened when hostilities ceased and those animals that had survived being shelled, shot, wounded, gassed, malnourished, worked to the point of total exhaustion and exposed to the harsh conditions of the weather and the battlefield ?.
• After the war ended, the British veterinary service (AVC) had classified surviving horses in France into several categories, including a group returned to England for sale. However, good horses in other theatres of war, such as the Middle
 Australian Mounted Division Supply train – Sinai & Palestine

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