The Real War Horse of WW I

Protecting horses from poison gas - World War I

Primative attempt at protecting horses (and humans) from poison gas during The First World War.

During the First World War, it is estimated that nearly 6,000,000 – 8,000,000 horses died on the Western Front on both sides.  In one of the saddest examples of the suffering and sacrifice of horses during “The Great War”, of the nearly 121,000 Australian “Waler” Horses, only one, named “Sandy” ever returned home.

The tragedy of the fate of these horses and the horror of war can be summed up in this poem about the Waler Horses.

“In the fading memory of tears and terror
does our nation remember its mortal error?
A thousand more and a thousand more
A breed of horses went to war.
From NSW we mustered them all
For king and country, to rise and fall.
They carried us; weary bloodied and dry
Never a query or what for? or why?
We sheltered beneith their salt crusted hides.
They trusted our voices, laid down and died.
Those that were left
became dust on the shore.
Lest we forget, the perils of war.”

It makes me wonder as to the real reason of the demise of horse cavalry – was it because of the mechanization of modern warfare and the industrialization of waging war, or was it the fact that the world’s horse population was nearly wiped out as a result of “The Great War”?

Western Civilization, it is said, was built from the back of a horse. We owe these magnificent animals a debt of gratitude that perhaps we can never repay.

I found this very moving video with some excellent footage about the Australian Waler Horse of WW I on YouTube. It is well worth watching:





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7 Responses to The Real War Horse of WW I

  1. This extract from the Brooke Hospital website outlines her contribution to the founding of Brooke Hospital for Sick Animals in Palestine:
    “From humble beginnings as a hospital for warhorses in a dusty Cairo street founded in 1934, the Brooke has become the world’s biggest welfare charity for working equines. On arrival in Egypt in 1930, Dorothy Brooke was horrified to see hundreds of emaciated horses being used as beasts of burden on its streets. The wife of a British army major general, Dorothy Brooke was appalled to learn that these walking skeletons were ex-warhorses of the British, Australian and American forces. All of them had seen service in the First World War…when the conflict ended in 1918, they were sold into a life of hard labour in Cairo. Dorothy Brooke could not shake off the memory of these pitiful creatures. On her return to England she wrote a letter to the Morning Post – which later became the Daily Telegraph – exposing their plight. The public were so moved they sent her the equivalent today of £20,000 to help end the suffering of these once proud horses. Within three years, Dorothy Brooke had set up a committee and bought 5,000 of these ex-warhorses. Most were old and in the final stages of collapse, and had to be humanely put down. But, thanks to her compassion and tenacity, all of them ended their lives peacefully. But Dorothy Brooke knew that her work could not end there, thousands of horses, donkeys and mules toiled and suffered in Cairo. In 1934, Dorothy Brooke founded the ‘Old War Horse Memorial Hospital’ in Cairo, with the promise of free veterinary care for all the city’s working horses and donkeys…the Brooke Hospital for Animals was born.”
    This is the text of her 1931 letter to the Morning Post:
    “There have been several references lately in the columns of The Morning Post as to the possibility of raising a memorial to horses killed in the War. May I make a suggestion?
    “Out here, in Egypt, there are still many hundreds of old Army Horses sold of necessity at the cessation of the War. They are all over twenty years of age by now, and to say that the majority of them have fallen on hard times is to express it very mildly. This country, to begin with, is not suitable to our horses: the heat, dust, want of water, and the fact that European horses are bigger framed and require more food than the poorer class of owner is able to supply, all add very much to their sufferings.
    “Those sold at the end of the War have sunk to a very low rate of value indeed: they are past ‘good work’ and the majority of them drag out wretched days of toil in the ownership of masters too poor to feed them – too inured to hardship themselves to appreciate, in the faintest degree, the sufferings of animals in their hands.
    “These old horses were, many of them, born and bred in the green fields of England – how many years since they have seen a field, heard a stream of water, or a kind word in English?
    Many are blind – all are skeletons.
    “A fund is being raised to buy up these old horses. As most of them are the sole means of a precarious livelihood to their owners, adequate compensation must, of necessity, be given in each case. An animal out here, who would be considered far too old and decrepit to be worked in England, will have before him several years of ceaseless toil – and there are no Sundays or days of rest in this country. Many have been condemned and destroyed by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (not a branch of the RSPCA), but want of funds necessitates that all not totally unfit for work should be restored to their owners after treatment.
    “If those who truly love horses – who realize what it can mean to be very old, very hungry and thirsty, and very tired, in a country where hard, ceaseless work has to be done in great heat – will send contributions to help in giving a merciful end to our poor old war heroes, we shall be extremely grateful; and we venture to think that, in many ways, this may be as fitting (though unspectacular) part of a War Memorial as any other that could be devised.”
    Signed – Dorothy E. Brooke

  2. Dan Gilmore says:

    The Horses Stayed Behind
    By “Trooper Blue Gum”

    “In days to come we’ll wander west and cross the range again;
    We’ll hear the bush birds singing in the green trees after rain,
    We’ll canter through the Mitchell Grass and breast the bracing wind;
    But we’ll have other horses.
    Our chargers stay behind.
    Around the fire at night we’ll yarn about old Sinai;
    We’ll fight our battles o’er again; and as the days go by,
    There’ll be old mates to greet us The bush girls will be kind;
    Still our thoughts will often wonder to the horses left behind;
    I dont think I could stand the thought of my old fancy hack,
    Just crawling round old Cairo with a ‘Gypo on his back.
    Perhaps some English tourist out in Palestine may find,
    A broken-hearted Waler with a wooden plough behind,
    I think I’d better shoot him and tell a little lie;
    He floundered in a wombat hole and then lay down to die.

    Maybe I’ll get court-martialled; but damned if I’m inclined,

    To go back to Australia and leave my horse behind……”

  3. Roger Hanington says:

    From The Horse in War by Brereton —–
    . On campaign, riding and tending the same horse for months on end, sleeping in the open only a few yards behind the picket lines at night and suffering the same privations, the soldier came to regard his horse as almost an extension of his own being. There are many stories from the Western Front of strong men in tears over their stricken mounts.
    A painting by Matania was very popular in the immediate post-war years. Entitled Goodbye Old Man, it showed an artillery driver kneeling to nurse the head of his dying team-horse, while in the background one of his mates in the advancing battery impatiently beckons him to stop his nonsense and rejoin the column.
    Mawkish artistic sentiment? Not so; while writing this book I received a letter from an ex-troop sergeant of the 19th Hussars, describing an incident which might have served as a model for that picture. During a withdrawal under fire in May 1918, ——

    —- I was riding with the Squadron rearguard when one of the troop horses was badly hit by MG fire. Horse and rider crashed down in front of me. The horse lay on its side and the trooper, unhurt, had rolled clear. Kicking one foot out of the stirrup, I ordered the trooper to mount behind me. Instead, he crawled towards his horse which had raised its head and was looking at him. He reached the horse, gently lifted its head on to his knees, and stayed put. I again ordered him to mount, and drew my pistol, saying I would shoot the animal. He said nothing; just looked up at me, then down to the horse, and continued to stroke its head. From the look in the horse’s eyes, I think it knew it was the end, and I also think it understood its master was trying to give it what comfort he could. I didn’t shoot. Bullets were still smacking around and the squadron was almost out of sight. I said something to the effect ‘Well, it’s your funeral’ and trotted on to rejoin my place. The trooper caught up with the squadron later: he had stayed with his horse till it died. By all the laws of averages, he should have stopped one too.

  4. Thanks Dan,
    Good tribute.
    We breed Walers, all from genuine foundation stock.
    Strictly speaking, ‘Sandy’ was a thoroughbred. Gifted by the people of NE Victoria to General Bridges. He didn’t see action and stayed in Egypt, nevertheless he was sent back to lead the General’s funeral, and was put to pasture as a reward for his efforts.
    There is a fitting memorial off Hyde Park in London to all animals in War, it is inscribed,”–because they had no choice.”
    I can email,some photos if you like.
    Cheers Richard

    • Dan Gilmore says:

      Thanks. You don’t see very many Walers here in the States, but occasionally you run into a few that some very lucky (and wealthy) individual has imported.

  5. Biggest tribute goes to Dorothy Brooke, her hospital has endured.
    Thank you Roger.

  6. I was looking for info to make some of the lesser life understand why slaughtering horses for human consumption, why slaughtering horses for any reason – is unacceptable, immoral, evil, cowardly…I couldn’t watch the video, and to learn what they were left to – I cannot say more, I cannot stop my tears, except to ask, please, that this tragedy be made so public that every person who draws a breath will know.

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