The horses’ ‘war to end all wars’

War Horse''Pic: Andrew Cooper/Dreamworks
War Horse''Pic: Andrew Cooper/Dreamworks

IT’S dumber than dumb, that even now the human species tends to resolve major conflicts by blowing each other to bits.

And it’s even more criminal that throughout history dumb animals have been dragged into this nonsense, from Hannibal’s elephants to the horses of World War One.

And of course the ‘must see’ film of the moment is ‘War Horse,’ of local connections with the Devils Horsemen of Salden. Yet while the story is fiction the source is stark reality, and regarding our district after the outbreak of the First World War the town of Winslow became a major depot for horses which, with many brought from the north of England by rail, were dispersed on farms in the immediate area.

In fact by the end of November 1914, 1,400 had been sent to the war, and in mid 1915 there were some 4,000 in the district. With this being the infancy of mechanised transport, horses were still the prime means of motive power, and to obtain sufficient numbers the Government sent agents into various districts to secure as many as possible.

Thus when on Wednesday, August 5, 1914, Government agents came to this area, they obtained from The Grange, Bletchley, several fine specimens from the keen huntsman Lord Dalmeny, with their acquisitions branded with the broad arrow of the Government.

In fact the need was so great that while in mid round a group of soldiers commandeered the horse of the local Co-op bread cart, and with the van stranded at the bottom end of Water Eaton Road the bewildered bread boy had to fetch another horse. However, the following day the animal dropped dead in the shafts, no longer able to pull the heavy weight. (In August 1918 the New Horse Order was made, so that no more than six persons could ride in a horse drawn carriage. This was because horses due to the restrictions of corn etc were not fed so well now.)

With so many horses the Army had the urgent need for horse shoes and in October 1914 Mr J Bailey, a shoeing smith of Newport Pagnell, received an order from the War Office to supply as many hand made horse shoes as possible.

These were to be made for ‘screws,’ to enable soldiers to ‘rough’ their own horses and avoid delay, and Mr. Bailey’s eldest son was also doing his bit, as a shoeing smith in the Royal Bucks Hussars.

Horses are often mentioned in the letters sent home by men serving at the Front, and writing to his sister in Victoria Road, Bletchley, in October 1914 Private Jones, of the 16th Dragoon Guards, 4th Cavalry Brigade, includes; ‘...The only things that make you ‘duck’ your head are the shells from their big siege guns. They do terrible damage if they catch anyone. One burst a few yards from me two days ago, and killed 12 horses and eight men. I only escaped being hit through lying on the ground. It killed two horses standing near me... I have had my own horse shot and I am now riding a German horse which I captured from a Uhlan. I was almost captured by the Germans, while riding on my own through a forest one night with despatches. They were as frightened as myself. They never attempted to catch hold of my horse so I dug my spurs in and galloped like blazes... The country is in a terrible state round here. Whole villages are blown to pieces, and all the hay and corn stacks are burnt down through shell fire. There is nothing but dead horses and graves and holes six feet deep where the big shells have dropped...’

Then in December another soldier from Bletchley wrote: ‘I am writing this letter on picket at 3.30am over nine horses, most of them lying down. The more you have to do with horses the more you like them, especially when they get to know you well and give a little low neigh when you come to the place where they happen to be’.

In fact for many men their most harrowing recollections would be of the dead and wounded horses. But with the demands of war having accelerated the dominance of motorised transport, never again would there be such an equine sacrifice.

And so at least for horses, perhaps, this really was the ‘war to end all wars.’