Farming Heroes: Britain’s War Horses

While horses may be more often associated with medieval warfare, they also played a significant part in warfare as recently as World War One.

Horses that were sent to war were used for more than just cavalry charges. In addition to combat, they were also put to work in everything from hauling heavy artillery to transporting the wounded. 

Sourced from the farms of Britain to the fields of Canada, horses formed an essential part of the British war effort. Hundreds of thousands of horses and mules were used for various purposes during the war.

While significant efforts were made to ensure the welfare of these animals, life was still dangerous and difficult for war horses. 

The use of horses in the First World War offered key advantages to armed operations and the legacy of these amazing animals still lives on in hearts and minds today. 


From Fields to the Front 

By 1901, Britain had become home to more than three million horses, triple the number that had been in Britain in the early 1800s.

Horses and ponies  were used across the UK in a variety of industries, from hauling loads in mine shafts, to pulling ploughs on the farms across Britain, to being the main event on race day.

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However, at the outbreak of the First World War, these horses became a necessity for the front.  By 1917, three years into the war, over 360,000 horses were on the Western Front.

A horse that has collapsed through exhaustion on a WW1 battlefield
Horses suffered heavy casualties during the war. Many were injured or killed in action, while others succumbed to diseases, exhaustion, and the harsh conditions of the battlefield.

The equivalent of three billion pounds in today’s currency was spent on buying, training and sending horses and mules to the front. While many of these horses came from Britain, not all did.

The army required such a large number of horses that Britain didn’t have enough that fit the specific requirements needed for military service.

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As such, Britain also looked abroad to source its war horses; 130,000 of the horses engaged in the service of the British army in World War One actually came from Canada. 

By the end of the war, the British Army had bought more that 460,000 horses and mules, having begun with just 25,000 at the onset of the conflict. 

Horses for Sale?

In many cases people were required to give up their horses should the army claim to need them for the war effort. 120,000 horses were requisitioned from Britain’s population in just the first few weeks of the First World War.

Horse team during WW1 pulling gun carriages on the battlefield
Horses faced extremely challenging conditions on the front lines. They endured artillery barrages, gas attacks, and adverse weather, often working long hours without proper rest or care.

The army knew who had these horses as prior to the actual outbreak of war, a rather thorough census of Britain’s equine population had been undertaken. 

This census had taken stock of what horses were owned by whom, and even included details such as what sort of work each horse was suitable for, the train station they were nearest to, and even how much they ate.

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An Army Remount Officer was tasked with going around the countryside to purchase horses for the army.


If a horse was deemed to be needed by the army and the owner could not prove that it was essential for vital agricultural or transportation activities, they had to give it up for army duty. 

There were certain requirements a horse had to meet to be considered for service. This included that it had to be more than three years in age, in good health, and an appropriate size for the sort of work they would be required to do.

Two horses during WW1 with nose bags full of feed.
The service and sacrifices of horses in World War I left a lasting impact on public sentiment. After the war, efforts were made to commemorate their contributions, leading to the establishment of memorials like the Animals in War Memorial in London.

This last requirement was dependent on the certain task the horse was needed to undertake, with different requirements for draught horses or cavalry horses, for example. There was also the regulation that horses under fifteen hands high could not be recruited.

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Rather than being based on the best attributes for service, this last regulation was in response to members of the civilian population contacting the War Office pleading for their family ponies to remain out of the war. 

Caring for Horses at War 

While horses did face a constant threat of disease and injury while involved in the conflict, it was expected that they would be well cared for.

Veterinary officers were employed to care for horses that became injured or unwell and the Blue Cross Fund was vital in providing medical supplies and help to animals at war.

In 1915 the Blue Cross even created guides to distribute to those that were working with horses over the course of the war to ensure the animals were treated as well as possible under the circumstances.

British Army vets treating a wounded horse during WW1
Treating a wounded horse, 1917

Horses were also expected to be frequently groomed and checked on a daily basis for signs of injury or illness.

There were requirements for horses to be fed via a nosebag system rather than placing food in troughs or on the ground, as this not only helped reduce food wastage, but also limited the chance of a horse accidentally consuming something harmful.

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When it came to sufficient sustenance, horses in the British Armed Forces often fared better than those under the care of other forces. For example German horses often starved during blockades, forcing those that cared for them to feed them sawdust. 

A Hard Existence 

While they were cared for, the life of a war horse was still a difficult existence. Horses risked injury and death by artillery and gas exposure.

However, they more commonly succumbed to disease, fatigue, lameness and exposure. Up to 75% of the horses that perished in the First World War met their end not from a stray bullet, but from the effects of exhaustion or disease. 

Horse team during WW1 stuck in mud on the battlefield
Veterinary units were established to provide medical care for injured or sick horses. These units helped treat and care for horses suffering from wounds, diseases, and exhaustion.

It was not uncommon for horses to have to walk long distances in unforgiving conditions.

A lack of adequate stables also meant that horses frequently slept outside in weather that could be hot, cold, wet, or muddy. Even just getting to the front could be a dangerous journey. More than 3,000 horses are thought to have died during transportation.

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SS Armenian

Disease and injury posed significant threats to horses on the seas, however the threat of conflict was also always looming.

Over 2,500 horses are thought to have died when the vessels they were being transported on were attacked and sunk by enemy vessels.

This includes one case in which 1,400 horses and mules died a watery death when the horse transport vessel SS Armenian was sunk off the coast of Cornwall in June 1915. 

Two horses carrying artillery shells through mud on a WW1 battlefield
Horses were essential for transporting troops, equipment, and supplies on the war-torn Western Front.

However, the better overall care given to horses during the First World War when compared to prior conflicts did give them a much better survival rate.

Only roughly 20% of the horses that were treated for injury and illness by the Army Veterinary Corps were not successfully returned to the front lines.

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Similarly, while during the Crimean War in the mid-1800s, the army lost 80% of its horses every year, this number dropped to just 15% in the First World War. 

Food and Firepower 

While there were cavalry horses in the First World War, many of the equine members of the British war effort were instead used for their hauling capabilities.

Horses were a vital part of the supply chains that fed the war effort and carried essential supplies to and from the front.

Horses pulling gun carriages on the battlefield during WW1
Horses played a pivotal role in maintaining supply lines between the rear and front lines. They helped to keep soldiers fed, armed, and equipped by delivering necessities to the troops.

Everything from the food that fed the soldiers to artillery to vital equipment and medicine was transported from depots to the front with horses and mules. 

Using horses and mules for the transportation of supplies had distinct advantages.

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These animals could move by foot over rough terrain and in areas where roads had been washed out or damaged, making them inaccessible by other means.

In the case of the Western Front, there were instances in which the mud could be so deep that vehicles would become bogged and horses became the only way vital supplies could be delivered.

Horses were also used to haul heavy guns. The 18-pounder, a key heavy weapon in the First World War, for example, was often manoeuvred onto and around battlefields with the assistance of a six horse team. 

Wood and the Wounded 

Horses weren’t just used to take supplies to the front but also to transport people away from it. Draught horses pulled ambulances carrying injured soldiers to field hospitals.

WW1 horse drawn ambulance being used on the battlefield
These ambulances were essentially horse-drawn carts with stretchers or beds that could carry wounded soldiers from the battlefield to field hospitals or aid stations.

A quick, albeit rather uncomfortable, journey, these horse-drawn ambulances provided a way for the injured to be transported over sometimes otherwise impassable terrain. 

Horses also helped to build the trenches of the First World War. Wood was vital in the construction of the trenches, and horses were used by the Forestry Corp.

Each company in the Forestry Corp had a team of 120 horses, these horses were vital for pulling cart loads of timber and for transporting felled logs. 

The Legacy of the War Horse 

At the end of the war, the horses that had valiantly formed a key part of Britain’s war effort were not forgotten.

The army was committed to ensuring horses didn’t face cruelty and pledged that it would humanely put down a horse before selling it to a cruel owner. Horses were sold or given to a wide variety of people after the war.

WW1 war horse being pulled in a car near the battlefield
A horse float presented to the Army Veterinary Corps by the RSPCA, c1915

100,000 horses were sold to work in various industries across Britain and a further 400,000 were sold abroad. The army kept some horses at the end of the war but sadly some were euthanized.

Horses formed an important part of the war effort throughout the First World War. They were essential in transporting supplies, hauling ammunition and giving the wounded a fighting chance.

While horses may not be the first thing many people think of when considering the First World War, the legacy of these brave creatures still lives on.

Here is a overview history of Britain’s war horses during WW1:

Preparation and Deployment:

  • When Britain entered World War I in 1914, there was an urgent need for logistical support on the Western Front. Horses were requisitioned from farms, estates, and civilian life to meet the demands of the war effort.
  • Thousands of horses were mobilized, and they underwent basic training to prepare them for the challenging conditions of the battlefield.

Transportation and Supply:

  • Horses were employed as draught animals to haul heavy artillery pieces, ammunition, and supplies through the mud and trenches of the Western Front.
  • They played a vital role in maintaining supply lines, ensuring that troops were equipped with food, ammunition, and medical necessities.

Medical Evacuation:

  • Horse-drawn ambulances were used to evacuate wounded soldiers from the front lines to field hospitals and aid stations.
  • These ambulances, often staffed by medical personnel, helped transport injured soldiers to receive medical attention quickly.

Messenger and Communication Duties:

  • Horses were used as messengers, carrying important communications between units when traditional communication lines were disrupted.
  • The speed and reliability of horses made them valuable assets in relaying crucial information.

Cavalry and Charges:

  • While trench warfare reduced the effectiveness of cavalry charges, horses were still used in reconnaissance and cavalry roles during the early stages of the war.
  • The development of trench systems and machine guns led to a shift away from traditional cavalry tactics.

Challenging Conditions:

  • War horses endured harsh conditions on the battlefield, including exposure to artillery fire, gas attacks, and extreme weather.
  • Veterinary units were established to provide medical care for injured or sick horses, helping to maintain their operational capabilities.

Casualties and Sacrifices:

  • Horses suffered significant casualties during the war, with many being injured, killed in action, or succumbing to disease and exhaustion.
  • Their sacrifices underscored their integral role in supporting the war effort.

**Legacy and Commem