Mesopotamia, now modern Iraq, was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire at the start of the Great War. With oil interests in the region, British troops were first despatched to the region in 1914 to prevent the Turks from interrupting the supply of oil, much of which was used by the Royal Navy. Gradually Mesopotamia, or Mespot, turned into a full-scale war with large numbers of British and Indian Army troops involved. In 1916 there was a major defeat at Kut, but gradually the war turned in Britain’s favour leading to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the region in 1918.
There were trenches and battles in Mespot that saw some of the earliest forms of British desert warfare. Here two soldiers of an Army Service Corps unit have constructed a field stove in a trench system. The goggles they wear were required kit in Mespot where sandy desert winds could reduce visibility very quickly and sand particles blind soldiers very quickly. One author called Mespot ‘The Bastard War‘ and it is clear that conditions were tough here for British troops, up against an often underestimated but formidable enemy like the Ottoman Turks.
Motorised transport was an essential part of any army in 1914, but very much in the minority compared the much greater amount of horse transport each nation put onto the battlefield. The British Army of 1914 lacked a great deal of it, so following the outbreak of war and by the time of the First Battle of Ypres, the War Office had commandeered a number of London motor buses along with their drivers, who became part of the Army Service Corps. These buses – which soon became known as ‘Old Bill Buses‘ with a reference to Bairnsfather’s Old Bill character – were photographed during First Ypres still painted in their London colours but by 1915 they were army green, with boarded up windows.
This image shows British troops waiting to board a series of buses to take them to a rest area somewhere in Flanders in 1915. The two men with their backs to the camera are officers, and their kit and the fact they are carrying rifles, reflects the changes that wartime conditions were enforcing; officers now had to try and look like the men to avoid being sniped. The ‘MT ASC’ white signage can be seen on the bus showing how they had now become standard equipment for some of the Mechanical Transport units of the Army Service Corps. One of the crew stands in the rear door, perhaps as he had done as a conductor in the days of peace.
There is an old adage that an army marches on its stomach, and by 1914 the British Army realised that to fight even a short war in Europe it would have to provide the required infrastructure to feed it’s troops on campaign. Much of this work was done by the Army Service Corps (ASC) and one of it’s key units in providing part of the staple diet was the Field Bakery. In 1914 there was one Field Bakery in every infantry division. Staffed by one officer and ninety-two men from the ASC it could produce enough bread for more than 20,000 men. Because of the nature of their work they did not set up these bakeries near the front, and many in 1914/15 were based in locations like Rouen and Abbeville, and a little nearer the front in St Omer and Hazebrouck. They tended to be static units that did not move around much.
This image shows the inside of a Field Bakery in France in 1914/15. A Non Commissioned Officer from the ASC is in the background overseeing the work and the men are in work aprons sorting and stacking the loaves so they can then be sent off to the troops at the front. Who the young lad at the front is, is something of a mystery; while there were many boy soldiers this one looks especially young; perhaps he was a local helping out?
The children’s author Michael Morpurgo published War Horse in 1982 long before the growth of interest in the Great War began. He has said many times that little did he realise it would morph from a child’s book to a play seen mainly by adults to now a Hollywood film. While some websites are arguing about whether the right uniforms and equipment will be shown, or whether it will be an exaggerated North American view of a war that it barely known of in the US, it seems likely it will bring many with only a passing interest in the subject to ask more, and perhaps remember a few stories of war horses passed down in their own family.
Horses in the Great War are as much a symbol of that conflict as the mud of Passchedaele or the gas mask. Veterans I interviewed in the 1980s had harrowing, often terribly sad memories of animals they had cared for at the front, and in my Great War photo archive I have literally hundreds of images showing a beloved horse, special to a particular soldier who brought them home.
An Army Service Corps Horse Transport limber in France 1918.
The sheer scale of animals used is incredible. The British Official History shows that in August 1914 the army had 165,000 horses on the establishment; doing everything from pulling wagons and ambulances, to serving in mounted regiments or serving as Sir John French’s charger. The same establishment four years later numbered more than 828,000 horses and in those four years millions of animals had been brought into use by the British alone. For the British effort horses were brought from a wide area; 428,00 from North America, 6,000 from South America and some were even sourced in Spain and Portugal. At war’s ending many were sold locally but nearly 95,000 were brought back to Britain for sale, sometimes to their original owners. The cost to the horses was great; more than 225,000 of them died in British service on the Western Front and more than 376,000 died in service with the French Army; figures for the German war effort seem unavailable.
Germans shelter in a dugout with their horse, 1916.
One of the sad facts when I lived on the Great War battlefields was that when a field was ploughed the most common bones found were not human but horse or mule. How these animals were loved can be expressed that many officers wanted to be buried with their horses if they fell; and I know of at least one war grave where that indeed happened.
A French Poilu with his horse, 1915.
War Horse the film will make thousands of people think about the Great War and remember the often forgotten sacrifice of those beautiful animals who marched under the thunder of the guns just like their human masters.