The Eastern Front in the Great War is something few are aware of; the Eastern Front of a generation later in Hitler’s war has eclipsed it and the fact that at any given time more than a million German soldiers faced potentially millions of Russian troops, both deadlocked in the East in the same way there was deadlock in the West. The Eastern Front became a mirror of France and Flanders in some ways; trenches, No Man’s Land, barbed wire, shelling and attrition. Joined by troops of the Austro-Hungarian Empire more than 800,000 Germans died in the East along with 1.15 million Austro-Hungarians; opposite them more than 2.2 million Russians died before the Russian Revolution changed everything.
This photograph comes from a collection of a young German gunner who served on the Eastern Front between 1914 and 1917, before he moved to France where he died in 1918. Here two German war horses are pulling a transport wagon used to carry material, food and other equipment for the artillery regiment he served with. In both World Wars horses were the only reliable transport in the often awful conditions on the Eastern Front: extremities of cold and rain which turned the roads and battlefield into a quagmire, and often caused more casualties from the elements than the enemy. Thousands of horses died on the Eastern Front, forgotten animals on a forgotten front.
Gas was a weapon that will be forever associated with the Great War. First used at Ypres in April 1915, it caused many casualties among the front line troops. But gas did not just linger on the battlefield – it drifted. And in drifting it moved into areas that were used to bring up supplies and ammunition, and as the war progressed, these areas became often as much targeted as the front line.
As the majority of transport in every army during WW1 was horse or mule transport, then these animals became as much affected by the gas as their human masters. Just as gas masks were developed for the troops, masks were equally introduced for horses; this image shows a British soldier wearing a Small Box Respirator, introduced in 1916, checking the gas masks of two horses pulling a service wagon. Gas warfare was a bad enough experience for humans; one can only wonder at the experience the horses went through when poison gas enveloped the battlefield.
The use of British Cavalry regiments in the Great War is something that the War Horse film recently highlighted. In 1914 the British Army still placed a heavy importance on the role of cavalry not only in an offensive role to attack an enemy, but also in a reconnaissance one. This was certainly a task cavalry was used for in the early battles of the war although occasionally there were full scale charges such as that of the 4th Dragoon Guards and 9th Lancers at Audregnies on 24th August 1914. When the war went static cavalry had less of a chance to be directly involved but entire regiments still went into battle on horseback at High Wood on the Somme in July 1916, Monchy at Arras in April 1917 and during the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, as just a few examples. In 1918 the war became more mobile and the use of cavalry in the front line became more commonplace again,with famous actions at Moreuil Wood and on the Hindenburg Line.
This image shows a soldier of the 5th Lancers during training before he departed to France in 1916. This is very much the sort of attire the regiment would have gone to war with in 1914. By the time this soldier joined the regiment on the Western Front they had been dismounted and were being used as infantry in the trenches, but like all cavalry in 1918 they returned to fight on horse back with the last British casualty of the war being a 5th Lancer killed on horseback near Mons on 11th November 1918, George Edward Ellison.
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.