Horses played a significant role in World War One, although they played a slightly different part to that of their predecessors in former battles; rather than acting purely as mounts for soldiers, they were largely used for transport of officers and supplies.
When the war broke out in Western Europe in August 1914, both Britain and Germany had cavalry forces that numbered around 100,000 men. This required the use a significant number of horses but at the time the military officers considered this approach to be superior to more modern techniques.
In fact, the horrors of trench warfare far surpassed the imaginations of the senior military personnel, who were vindicated in their choice of a cavalry approach when it became clear that soldiers were struggling.
Cavalry was so well-respected that the British cavalry regiments were actually considered as the more senior of the army, with many of the senior positions in the British army held by cavalry officers.
In spite of this, the cavalry attack that took place near Mons in August 1914 was almost the last seen in World War One, and in war in general. While trench warfare proved more difficult than anticipated, the insistence of many armies to continue to engage in this way rendered cavalry charges almost impossible. These problems were exacerbated by the increase use of machine guns and barbed wire.
There were some cavalry charges that took place in spite of the complexities of trench warfare. In March 1918, for example, the British launched a cavalry charge against the Germans. However, just four of the 150 horses used in the charge survived, with the rest killed by machine gun fire.
Thankfully, horses were still useful for other jobs, including transportation of supplies to the front line. This was more efficient that using motor vehicles, which were still new at the time and so prone to suffering from issues. Horses, on the other hand, required very little maintenance.
In total, more than eight million horses died across all side during World War One, with two and a half horses sent for treatment in veterinary hospitals. Around two million of these were treated successfully and sent to return to duty.
The relationships that grew between the soldiers and their horses was incredibly strong. One artilleryman who had lost his horse to hunger wrote:
He (Sailor) would work for 24 hours a day without winking. He was quiet as a lamb and as clever as a thoroughbred, but he looked like nothing on earth, so we lost him. The whole artillery battery kissed him goodbye and the drivers and gunners who fed him nearly cried."
"Horses in World War One". HistoryLearning.com. 2023. Web.