I don’t know a lot about my grandfather’s experiences as a sergeant with the horse brigade in the First World War. He didn’t talk about it with us; I doubt he talked about it much to anyone. It just wasn’t done in those days.
I do know that while he never fought in the trenches, his brigade was charged supplying the front lines and he received recognition for front-line duty. I also know that in his army-issued spurs, the rowels had been replaced with nickels.
A lifetime later, after he’d returned to Canada, taken up dairy farming, married and raised four kids, served a quarter-century as the secretary of the Winnipeg District Milk Producers Association and retired, he gave me a book titled The Horseman’s Friend and Veterinary Adviser.
It was a special edition, with an added chapter on “The Breeding in Canada of Horses for Army Use” (circa 1900) written by J.G. Rutherford, Canada’s chief veterinary officer. It advised breeders on what to look for and encouraged them to consider raising horses for military supply.
“While the supply of horses suitable for military use has always, even in times of peace, been a serious question, the experience of our South African troubles has given it an importance altogether new and somewhat startling,” the chapter begins.
An online article by the South African Military History Society says the British army sent 520,000 horses and 150,000 mules to help defend its Empire in the Boer War (1899-1902), of which 350,000 horses and 50,000 mules perished. The British were looking for more and, according to Rutherford, the Dominion hadn’t been contributing “her fair share.”
Those service animals were later honoured with a statue in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, a memorial that carries these words — “The greatness of a nation consists not so much in the number of its people or the extent of its territory, as in the extent and justice of its compassion.”
It seems an odd tribute to lowly creatures. But it speaks to the reality that in those times there was a strong connection — a relationship — between humans and the animals with which they worked. In combats that spared neither man nor beast, they shared each other’s pain.
A poignant account of that relationship is found in this First World War excerpt cited in an article by G.R. Duxbury in the Military History Journal. It comes from a letter written by a gun driver, who was later killed in action, talking about his horses.
“I had driven them for three years. I tell you I could talk to them just as I am talking to you. There was not a word I said that they did not understand. And they could answer me — they could indeed. I was never at a loss to know what they meant. When I was astride one of them — why, I only had to THINK what I wanted him to do and he would do it without being told.
“Early in the Retreat from Mons (the long, fighting retreat by Allied forces to the River Marne, on the Western Front early in the First World War) a big shell crashed right into the midst of the section. The driver in front of me was blown to bits, but I was thrown clear unhurt. My gun was wrecked, I was ordered to take the place of a casualty in the other. As I mounted the fresh horse to continue the retreat I saw my two poor horses with the blood coming from them struggling and kicking on the ground to free themselves. I could not go back to them. I tell you it hurt me. Suddenly a French chasseur dashed up to them, cut the traces and set them at liberty…
“Those horses followed me for four days. We stopped for hardly five minutes, and I could not get back to them. There was no work for them, but they kept their places in the line like trained soldiers. They were following me to the very end, and the thought occurred a thousand times, ‘What do they think of me on another horse?’ Whenever I looked, there they were watching me so anxiously and sorrowfully as to make me feel guilty of deserting them. Whenever the word ‘Halt!’ ran down the column I held up my hand to them and they saw it every time. They stopped instantly.
“Whether they got anything to eat I do not know. I wonder whether they dropped out from sheer exhaustion. I hope to heaven it was not that. At any rate one morning when the retreat was all but over I missed them. I suppose I shall never see them again. That’s the sort of thing that hurts a soldier in war.”
As we take time November 11 to remember the sacrifices of those who served in combat, we acknowledge their contribution to the freedoms and choices we have today. Perhaps one of the lessons of that time is a reminder that our changing and evermore complex relationship with animals — as companions, service animals, and food sources — reflects our own humanity. What we do to them, we do also to ourselves.