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Soldiers and their Horses in The Great War

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Authored by Jane Flynn
Published on 30th October, 2020 6 min read

Soldiers and their Horses in The Great War

The British Army of 1914-1918 fully appreciated the numerous benefits to be gained by properly managing its equine resources. Despite the increased use of mechanised alternatives, horses were nevertheless still the most versatile and reliable means of transporting men and equipment over difficult terrain. Horses were essential in modern warfare, but they were only able to perform the tasks demanded of them when properly managed. Although horses had distinct advantages over motorised vehicles, they required constant attention, and this responsibility fell to the drivers and troopers to whom they were assigned. 

The Army’s primary focus was to prevent animals from becoming unfit for active service, and especially for reasons other than those caused by enemy action. The management of animals in the field was extremely challenging; and accident, lameness and illness were unavoidable in such extreme conditions. However, many causes of ‘horse wastage’ could be minimised when horses were managed and handled properly. It was, for example, possible to avoid Mud Fever through careful and thorough grooming, or to avoid rubs and galls by ensuring harness fitted properly and was regularly cleaned. For this reason, ‘prevention is better than cure’ became an ethos used throughout the British Army’s organization; the principle being that it was better to prevent injury and illness from occurring in the first place than to deal with the consequences after the event. It was by far the most effective and economical way of avoiding ‘unnecessary horse wastage’.[i] 

Horse-soldiers were trained to see their horse much as an infantryman would his rifle – as an essential item of military equipment that only functioned effectively when it was properly maintained. This fundamental principal was instilled in the horse-soldier through a combination of training, routine, supervision, and punishment. Ideally, the Army wanted its drivers and troopers to develop the practical and sympathetic consideration for their horse’s well-being that formed the basis of good horse management. It was this consideration, once strengthened through daily contact and mutual reliance in adversity, that bonded the soldier and his horse into an effective fighting unit.

As a result, and while the War Office saw numbers of horses supplied, numbers on the Army’s strength, and numbers destroyed, the personnel of horsed regiments came to see their horses from a very different perspective. It was relatively straightforward to think of a horse or mule only as an item of military equipment while it remained just one of many thousands, but it became increasingly difficult to ignore each horse’s individual character traits once issued to its unit. The horses and mules became central to the daily life of the soldier, his team, his battery, and the unit to whom he belonged.[ii] 

Soldiers and their horses experienced dangers and hardships on a daily basis, and often teams developed a mutual reliance akin to that forged between the soldiers themselves. Many soldiers developed an almost superstitious attachment to the horses, and were quite convinced that it was they who had saved them from disaster and death. J.R. Johnston, who had served on the Western Front as a Horse Transport Driver with the Canadian Army, was quite convinced that his two horses were the reason he had survived the War. He was proud of Split Ear and Tuppence and believed he had been particularly lucky the day they were assigned to him:

I had been given a team of horses and it was one of my lucky breaks in the army. I had a small western team, about eight hundred and fifty pounds each and by far the best team in the outfit. My saddle horse was about as nice an animal as could be found and, although the off horse was somewhat nervous, they made a wonderful little team... I gave them credit for getting me out of a lot of dirty messes that I found myself in.[iii]

Johnston believed his ‘kindness’, or sympathetic consideration, was repaid when Split Ear ‘took care’ of him.[iv] When Johnston remembered his two horses it was with pride, respect, and great affection. At some point Johnston and his team were separated, and he did not explain what became of them.[v] This small tragedy, for so it must surely have been for him at the time, reminds us that a soldier’s horse was never his own, no matter how fond of it he may have become.[vi] 

Living and working together, soldiers and their horses shared the dangers and hardships of war for months, and often years. This does not mean that every soldier had a sentimental attachment to his horses, but there was a close working partnership. Many soldiers came to rely upon their horses, and to put their trust in them, even though horses also had the potential to get a soldier into just as much physical danger, and into just as much trouble, as they did of saving him from it. In short, horses were military equipment, but they were not machines either. Love them or hate them, it was inescapable that a relationship was formed between soldiers and their horses.[vii]


[i] Blenkinsop L.J. and Rainey J.W., History of the Great War Based on Official Documents, Veterinary Services, His Majesty’s Stationary Office, London, 1925, p.701.

[ii] Flynn J., Soldiers and their Horses: Sense, Sentimentality and the Soldier-Horse Relationship in The Great War, Routledge, New York, 2020, p.64.

[iii] Johnston J.R., Riding into War, The Memoir of a Horse Transport Driver, 1916-1919, Goose Lane Editions and The New Brunswick Military Heritage Project, New Brunswick, Canada, 2004, p.36-37.

[iv] Johnston J.R., Riding into War, p.54-55.

[v] Johnston J.R., Riding into War, p.90.

[vi] Flynn J., Soldiers and their Horses, p.81.

[vii] Flynn J., Soldiers and their Horses, p.83.


Authored by Jane Flynn

Jane Flynn

Jane Flynn PhD is a teacher, historian, and writer with research interests in myth, memory, national identity, and the visual representation of work and war. Her work on the soldier-horse relationship was recently published in her book, Soldiers and their Horses: Sense, Sentimentality and the Soldier-Horse Relationship in The Great War (Routledge: 2020). Jane blogs on, and hosts the Facebook group ‘Horses and History’. She brings a lifelong passion for horses to her work.

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