Since around the 8th Century BC, every war up to the early 20th Century had its element, dominant or otherwise, of horse mounted warriors (not forgetting the even earlier chariot mounted warriors). And every army needed its draught horses.
As the European generals made their plans in 1914 for mobilisation for what was to become known as the Great War, they too had every expectation that the horse-mounted soldier would again have an important role to play. Indeed, some senior army officers, including the British Commander-in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), General Douglas Haig, believed it would play a war-winning role. So confident were they of its efficacy in achieving a decisive breakthrough, the commanders invested a considerable part of their growing resources into the cavalry arm of their respective armies.
Readers of the annals of the Great War will know that whilst the cavalry did have a part, often a vital part, in the conduction of a mobile war in places such as the Eastern Front, Mesopotamia and, in particular, in General Allenby's victories in Palestine, in general this did not happen so effectively on the Western Front. So, why not?
In the evolution of the cavalry over the centuries, two forms of mounted warrior developed, The Light and The Heavy. The early light cavalry was usually made up of tribal horsemen armed with bows and arrows, acting as skirmishers rather than shock troops. This role was left to the heavy cavalry, wearing a 'hard' helmet and body armour made from a range of protective materials from leather to steel plate, and armed with a variety of weapons such as lances, maces, axes and swords and, later, firearms.
The cavalry in 1914
By the eve of the Great War, the cavalry of the European combattant nations still had this basic pattern of light and heavy cavalry bearing arms ranging from lances and swords, to pistols and rifles. Indeed, some European cavalrymen still wore remnants of steel armour plate in the form of helmets and breast/back-plates. The French cuirassier being the classic example with his burnished silver breast- and back- plates and plumed metal helmet; all of which made him a splendid target.
Advances in military technology brought in their train a whole host of supportive units for the cavalry. There were machine gunners, batteries of artillery, squadrons of engineers, signallers and even field ambulances. A transport section provided the logistical wherewithal when the cavalry unit was on the move.
Nonetheless, not withstanding the transformation of warfare by the high explosive and shrapnel shell, the magazine rifle and the machine gun, many of the commanding generals still placed inordinate faith in the shock effect of the mounted sword and lance. It was the means by which many of them had earned their spurs in the colonial and continental wars that took place across the world in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It was the kind of war they best understood.
However, armies (particularly the British) were already increasingly in favour of dismounting the cavalry when the need arose, and using them in the classic infantryman role. A rifle, and training in its effective use when dismounted, was a standard part of the British cavalryman's basic equipment and training before and during the Great War. But the idea of dismounting of the cavalry to act as infantrymen in this way was by no means universally accepted by individual commanders, nor did it become the preferred practice of some of them.
It is well known that the maintenance and care of any horse, and particularly a cavalry-horse, is time consuming, and the cost of its feed and transport expensive. Under the conditions of the rigours of war, these requirements become even more demanding. Exposed to the stresses of war and climate, a horse quickly looses it stamina and condition unless it is well cared for both physically and nutritionally. And these requirements are not trivial. Around five and a half million tons of fodder for horses was transported to the BEF during the Great War: more than weight of the ammunition for the guns. This amounted to something like 500 tons of fodder a day.
The cavalry crosses the Channel
When the BEF crossed the channel in mid-August 1914, the cavalry was in close attendance. Accompanying the four infantry divisions, was one cavalry division of four brigades, plus an independent Cavalry Brigade (5th) with it own Royal Horse Artillery Battery. Numerically, the BEF cavalry element comprised of around 9,300 officers and men and around 9,800 horses.
Sources of the horses
To meet the supply of horses for the cavalry, artillery and transport vehicles, huge numbers of horses were required over the 51 months of war in Europe. Starting with a stock of around 25,000 horses of all kinds at the outbreak of war in August 1914, considerable additional numbers had to be acquired to meet the needs of the fast growing BEF. Old sources through the commercial horse trade were quickly found to be inadequate, and over a 100,000 horses were immediately acquired by compulsory purchase, including many working the land and in use with public transport. Many patriotic horse owners gave them to nation, or sold them to the official purchasing agents at prices far below their civilian commercial value.
Inevitably, in such a vast and hurried scheme, quite a proportion of the horses were found to be ill-suited, or unfit, for active service; a lot of Government money was disbursed under dubious arrangements. Accordingly, the Army horse procurement teams decided to look overseas, and Ireland became a major centre for this activity of purchasing of what were called 'remounts' for the cavalry and 'draught horses' for the artillery and transport.
Well over a million British Army horses, of different kinds and uses, served in the Great War- 800,000 on the Western Front. They ranged from donkeys to the massive Shire horses; Clydesdales were particularly favoured for the heavy artillery guns. Nearly half of these horses died from wounds or disease acquired on active service: the great majority on the Western Front. Such high casualties were only to be expected. Whereas the infantryman could seek shelter from shot and shell by using the natural shelters provided by the lie of the land, along with shell-holes and man-made trenches, for the horses and their handlers it was much more problematic. Inherently a better target, due to their size and frequent immobility when harnessed to artillery-guns and transport wagons; they were also highly vulnerable when picketed in horse-lines in and out of the immediate battlefield. Frequently, a single high explosive, or shrapnel, shell would kill, or seriously wound, large numbers of horses and, often, their minders too.
Role of the horse
So what did all the use of all these horses, and their associated manpower, contribute to the final achievement of victory by the BEF and its allies? A generous assessment would say that in terms of draught-horses for the artillery guns and transport, it provided an irreplaceable and vital service. For the proportionally more numerous cavalry, the verdict would have to be comparatively little.
Initially, in the days of open and mobile warfare in the autumn of 1914, the British, Germans and French cavalry had some considerable, if sporadic, success as exemplified by the charge made by the BEF's 9th Lancers on the German 1st Guard Dragoons at Moncel on the 6th September 2003. However, a German cavalry counterattack nearby at Faujus, on the same day, was effectively destroyed by disciplined, dismounted, infantry style rifle- and machine gunfire. This plainly showed where the vulnerability of mounted cavalry lay: only to be even more graphically demonstrated when the barbed wire, mud, machine guns and artillery of the static war of the trenches made the calvary largely obsolescent in these conditions.
Nevertheless, despite these negative portents, the cavalry was present at most of the bigger set battles of the Great War. Usually, concentrated well behind the lines awaiting the moment when the infantry would break the enemy defenses, and allow the cavalry to surge through their ranks to turn the enemy flank and break free into the open country behind the enemy lines - the so-called 'galloping through' concept. Theoretically, this breakthrough would once again create a mobile war, leaving the morass of the trenches far behind.
Until 1918, this opportune moment rarely came and, usually, when it did, the opportunity either wasn't recognised in time, or the logistics of passing the effective masses of cavalry through the packed troop concentrations and across the war-shattered ground, made rapid and meaningful advance, in sufficiently large numbers, impossible. A classic example being the tank led Battle of Cambrai in 1917. Here, the above factors, plus a rapid reinforcement of the German defences, convinced the British Third Army commander, General Julian Byng, that the use of the two divisions of assembled British cavalry in this way was simply not feasible under these conditions.
Perhaps, the last hurrah of the cavalry horse in the Great War could be said to be the highly successful employment of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade at Moreuil Wood. On the 30th March 1918, they rapidly closed a gap in the British defences and stymied a German breakthrough planned as part of their 1918 Spring Offensive in France.
However, the role of the horse on the battlefield was far from over at the cease of hostilities in 1918. Even the so-called mechanised German Army of the Second World War used millions as draught animals. Even today, some armies still use sturdy packhorses in very difficult terrain. After 1918, the day of the cavalry horse was largely done, except in a highly decorative, ceremonial role: where would British state ceremonies be without the Household Cavalry?