The real-life war horses from Hampshire

PREPARED The Remount Depot at Romsey, where huge numbers of horses passed through en route to the battlefields
PREPARED The Remount Depot at Romsey, where huge numbers of horses passed through en route to the battlefields

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Lord Kitchener’s legendary ‘Your Country Needs You’ call to arms for the First World War enticed hundreds of thousands of men to join up.

But those men would have been useless without the one million horses which were also conscripted to take their place amid the carnage.

FAMOUS Warrior with General Seely and Queen Mary

FAMOUS Warrior with General Seely and Queen Mary

More than 6,000 horses were dragooned from the farms of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. They were also taken from city stables in the streets of Portsmouth and surrounding towns.

And all of those, plus another 200,000 from Britain and the United States, were shipped to the western front through Southampton docks.

Now Steven Spielberg’s film War Horse has renewed interest in the animals who toiled in appalling conditions alongside the troops.

They were with the British Expeditionary Force from the start. They were with it at the end. They served at the front, in the rear and in the support lines. They stumbled through the hell of no-man’s land.

In the mud, rain and terror of the trenches they supplied the men with food, water and ammunition, even though they were starved, sodden and spent. They died in their thousands.

At the battle of Le Cateau, in France on August 26, 1914, Albert George, an artillery sergeant, from Havant, remembered the bravery of one doomed team.

In papers held by Hampshire Records Office, he said: ‘We could see ammunition wagons about half-way to the gun, then a couple of shells would burst blowing the drivers and horses to smithereens. It was a terrible sight.

‘The horses were more or less starved of water. On the retreat we went to various streams with our buckets, but no sooner had we got the water halfway back to them than we moved again.

‘We had strong feelings towards our horses. We went into the fields and beat the corn and oats out of the ears and brought them back.

‘As the days went on, the horse’s belly got more up into the middle of its back, and the cry was frequently down the line, “Saddler – a plate and a punch.”

‘This meant the saddler had to come along and punch some more holes in the horse’s girth to keep the saddles on.’

Lieutenant Ronald Dixon, from Portsmouth, who served with the Royal Garrison Artillery, recalled the winter of 1916/17 and the subsequent Arras offensive.

He wrote: ‘The mud was awful and engulfed the horses. There were parts where wheeled traffic could not go, and yet supplies had to be got to their objectives and the guns moved. So loads had to be carried as packs and, in this way weighed-down, our war horses were pulled to pieces.’

Lt Dixon continued: ‘The ammunition had to be brought up with the supplies, over roads which were sometimes up to one’s knees in slimy yellow-brown mud. The horses were up to their bellies in mud. We had to shoot quite a number.’

More than 200,000 horses passed through the Romsey Remount Depot. Historian Phoebe Merrick unearthed the history of the 500-acre site and has created an exhibition at the town’s King John’s Museum.

She says: ‘Horses came from all over the place, initially from Hampshire farms and cities like Portsmouth.

‘Without them the war could not have happened and the stories of the bonds between the men and the animals are heart-wrenching.’

Warrior earned a reputation as ‘the horse the Germans couldn’t kill’

One of the most famous horses to survive the First World War was a bay thoroughbred, Warrior, reared on the Isle of Wight.

His owner, General Jack Seely, trained him on Brook Beach before taking him to the French battlefields in 1914. Both survived Ypres, the Somme and Paschendale and Warrior’s bravery earned him a reputation as ‘the horse the Germans couldn’t kill’.

Gen Seely’s grandson, Patrick Seely, who still lives at Mottistone Manor on the island, said: ‘They went through all those adventures together and survived. It’s a wonderful story which encapsulates that era – the drama, the horror and heroism.’

Another horse, also called Warrior, became a familiar figure in Southampton. After seeing action in France and being injured by shrapnel, the grey charger worked as a police horse in the city.

VITAL ROLE

The light draught horse and mule played a vital role in the First World War that is often overlooked.

Their owners were compensated, but they were taken from the fields, cities, factories and coal-pits of Britain and from the plains of north America.

They were press-ganged and shipped off to a terrible world just as unfamiliar to them as it was to their conscripted human counterparts.

Animals designated light draught (from a height of 15h 2in to 16h and a weight of up to 1,200lb) were used to pull artillery limbers, wagons and ambulances, to carry supplies and munitions or to perform other important odds and ends – either singularly or in teams. To put it simply, they were the backbone of the army’s logistic support.

Their numbers with the British Expeditionary Force in France rose to more than 475,000 by the autumn of 1918.

On all fronts and theatres a staggering 1.3 million horses and mules served with British and Commonwealth forces by the end of the war.

On the Western Front alone, more than 256,000 horses and mules died. Only 60,000 returned home and even then only because animal-loving Winston Churchill waged a campaign to save them.

Large-scale offensives were always a particularly dangerous time for the horse and mule. They could be hit by artillery fire and machine guns, or simply worked to breaking point.