Today’s guest blogger is Heather Collins, a volunteer moderator on Operation War Diary and also one of the Citizen Historians involved in tagging the diaries. She first became interested in WW1 through researching her own family’s contribution to the conflict and has been fascinated by it ever since.
The 2011 film War Horse brought the role of horses in 20th Century warfare back into the public focus and reminded us how much we relied upon them in an age where motor transport was not yet able to go everywhere. On the Western Front in World War 1, horses were used for moving all types of supplies and equipment as well as providing the fast moving fighting arm of the Cavalry. But even knowing how important the horse was, some of the figures relating to their use are still staggering to read:
- Over 1 million horses were sent overseas to war from the USA
- By 1917, 1000 horses per day were arriving in France as remounts for the British Army
- Casualties amounted to about 1 horse lost for every 2 men throughout the war
- Horse fodder was the largest single commodity shipped to the front by Britain – with a higher tonnage even than ammunition!
At the start of Operation War Diary, there was no way to track information about horses at all and pretty much from the first few days of tagging, users were asking why and wanting to be able to follow the story of the horses as well as that of the men. Early on we suggested that people use the hashtag #horses but it soon became obvious that as horses get a mention in just about every page of some diaries, this wasn’t really going to bring out much useful information! A rethink was needed if we wanted to make best use of the obvious desire of Citizen Historians to follow the fate of the horses.
Following some discussion on the project’s talk forum pages, which shows one of the strengths of a crowd-sourcing project like OWD, where users can get involved and have a real influence, we decided to try to define some more specific hashtags to follow particular aspects of the life of the horse on the Western Front.
Two months later we now have hashtags telling us about the condition of the horses, their food, their ailments, horse casualties and their evacuation into the veterinary chain. We have also developed hashtags to look at the condition of the roads and the problems with water supplies as a direct result of these initial ideas.
We already knew how important the horse was in the appalling front line conditions in France and Belgium. Even though motor transport existed, it was often completely incapable of even moving in the quagmire that developed close to the front lines and horses were sometimes literally the only way of getting the heavy equipment and supplies forward. For example in 1914 a single battery of the Royal Horse Artillery with 6 x 13 pounder field guns required over 200 horses to provide the motive power to move men and equipment quickly. So having these additional hashtags has enabled us to look at everyday details that the Units were recording in their War Diaries regarding their horses.
Here are a few snippets of the kind of information we have found:
Water: Units seem to have been constantly struggling to find an adequate water supply for their horses. In September 1916, the 2nd Divisional Ammunition Column sent 1000 horses to the rear area due to water difficulties.
Food : An Artillery battery describes the ration being cut in February 1917 to 9 pounds of oats and 10 pounds of hay as a result of which “horses lost condition during the cold owing to short food”. This was apparently due to increased German U-Boat activity in the Atlantic having reduced the amount of oats coming in from the USA.
Equipment: An ASC Company in the 2nd Divisional Supply Train talks about having “rough shod” their horses in the snowy weather. This is a process whereby shoes with protruding spikes or nails are fitted to enhance grip and it is the origin of the phrase “to ride roughshod over”, The diary goes on to describe the difficulty of fitting the attachments, which they call “cogs”, to the shoes where the existing shoes were already worn thin.
Fatigue: A Cavalry unit in August 1914 describes how the long marches (27 miles on this particular day) are taking their toll on the horses “Some were under saddle 20 hours and water was scarce. Most would neither eat nor drink when they got into bivouac” Most cavalry units already had a number of dismounted men due to the strain on the horses and the Veterinary Corps units were struggling to keep up with the numbers, many of whom simply required rest and food.
Casualties: Mobile Veterinary Sections (MVS) often talk about “horse floats”. This turns out not to be some sort of boat, but actually to be another name for a horse trailer or horsebox. These were being developed so horses that might otherwise have to be shot or abandoned could be recovered to their unit or to the MVS. In February 1915, 7 MVS report having visited a horse left by its Unit on a farm and they suggest it might be collected in a week’s time by another MVS “who have the use of a horse float”. The tone of the diary makes it clear the writer thinks all MVS Units should have such a modern innovation!
Why not join us at Operation War Diary and help us to find out more?
Names are perhaps the most important set of information being produced by Operation War Diary. We’re able to place named individuals in a rich context of place and time, as well as linking them to particular activities and events. Names that have long remained hidden in the diaries are becoming searchable and peoples’ stories are once again being told. Some names, however, are already well known to us, chief among them King George V, first monarch of the House of Windsor, which he created in 1917 after deciding the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha sounded a little too German.
Previously a professional Royal Navy officer, George visited the Western Front on several occasions and was even injured during one visit after his horse rolled on top of him and broke his pelvis. These visits feature prominently in a great many Operation War Diary diaries, and it’s notable how enthusiastic the authors generally are about them – they seem to have been a genuine morale booster for the troops.
During the early months of the war, the 3rd of December 1914 to be exact, the diary of the 1st Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, describes how they were “drawn up on either side of the street, and gave three cheers for the King as he passed through.”
On the 28th of October, 1915, the 1st Battalion The South Staffordshire Regiment “were inspected by H.M. the King, who was most heartily cheered by all ranks. He unfortunately was hurt by his horse falling after he left our part of the line…”
The 5th Division’s Ammunition Column also joined in with some hearty cheering of their own, while 142 Field Ambulance’s men cheered “spontaneously”.
George was keen to distance himself from his German roots – the Kaiser was actually his cousin – and famously remarked after H. G. Wells wrote of his “alien and uninspiring court” that “I may be uninspiring, but I’ll be damned if I’m alien.” Judging by these mentions of him in the diaries, it looks like he may have succeeded.