Remembering the American War Horse

When World War I began in 1914 armies still relied primarily on horses for transportation. War required hundreds of thousands of horses and mules to pull and pack artillery, supplies, cavalry, communications, medical, and engineering services. But when the war began, the equine reserve in Europe was not large enough to support massive armies. France, England, and Germany had to rely on other nations, and non-traditional military equine to shore up their numbers of horses, donkeys, and mules for use in this global conflict.

By fall 1914 hundreds of British and French purchasing agents and their staffs arrived in the United States and spread out across the continent. They selected  animals based on size, breed, and type from specific regions. They established vast networks that evaluated, and shipped the hundreds of thousands of horses needed. The British Remount and Mule Purchase Commission set up remount and shipping stations at Newport News, Virginia, and Montreal. Employing both British and Americans, significant work was needed to bring these animals to Europe. Americans handled the horses, and maintained vast paddocks, corrals, and veterinary facilities.  Ships were modified with stalls and fodder storage.  By fall 1917 more than half a million American horses and mules had been sold to the Allied armies and sent to Europe for service.

When the United States entered the war in 1917, a single American army division required 7,701 horses. The U.S. Army had difficulty fielding adequate equine power in Europe. The U-boat threat, urgent demand for soldiers, insufficient French remounts, and a late 1917 equine epidemic hampered the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).  British Veterinary officers called the AEF organization appallingly inefficient. It was reported that 70 percent of AEF depot horses were ill as opposed to seven percent in British depots. This situation proved a perilous threat to the effectiveness of the AEF.

The AEF moved rapidly to remedy the situation.  Over 1,000 horses were cut from the divisional allotment. Plans were laid to cut 2,800 more by motorizing divisional artillery regiments. The AEF borrowed horse and motor transport from the French to facilitate the American offensives. Additional horses were purchased in France, England and neutral Spain. In August 1918 American Veterinary Corps officers assumed key AEF staff and command posts in the Quartermaster Corps, combat divisions, and corps. By  November 1918 conditions and organization of AEF remount services had improved significantly, however, a shortage of 163,000 equine still existed at war’s end.

While equines played an important role in the war, significant details and information can be difficult to find. However, the commander of American Army Mobile Hospital No. 1 reported evacuating 23,000 sick and wounded horses from September to November 1918. The British Army recorded that by October 1917 225,856 of their horses in France had been killed, missing, or put down. British records estimate that one quarter were battle deaths, and the rest from disease and exhaustion. Efforts to commemorate the loss of these animals began during the war, and today, monuments to the service of horses, mules and donkeys in World War I  do exist. While the horse as a casualty of the war is not uniformly recorded, their role and service proved critical to the success of the Allies.

Suggested Reading:

 “War Business of Horses and Mules on the Santa Fe ”The Santa Fe Magazine , Railway Exchange, Chicago, Volume 10 #1, December 1915.

The Army Medical Department, 1917-1941,  by Mary C. Gillett. Washington, D.C. : Center of Military History, U.S. Army : 2009.

The Adventures of the U-202 Submarine: An Actual Narrative, by Baron Spiegel von und zu Peckelsheim, New York, The Century co., 1917.

 Report of the Military board of allied supply, Washington, Govt. print. off., 1924-25.

'Theirs Not To Reason Why': Horsing the British Army 1875-1925  Graham Winton

Capt. Sidney Galtrey, The Horse and the War, London, "Country life" [etc.] 1918.