Your Horse Is in the Army Now! But Where Did War Horses Go Before They Were Sent to France?

War Horse News is going to take a little detour this week. The detour passes through the Library of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) in London, which offers some clues to something that’s been on my mind about Joey’s path from the farm to the war.

There are two strong settings in the film War Horse. The farm scenes in rural Devon and the trenches and scorched earth of No Man’s Land at The Front.

War Horse News gold logo (small)But one other setting really stuck with me: the extensive stables where Captain Nicholls took Joey after buying him from Albert’s father. In the book version of War Horse, author Michael Morpurgo does into quite a bit of detail of this period of Joey’s life with Captain Nicholls. A war horse needs a lot of training, and Joey was turned over to Corporal Sam Perkins for what we might think of as dressage training.

Corporal Perkins complained, “He’s good out on maneuvers–a real stayer, one of the very best–but inside the school, sir, he’s a devil, and a strong devil, too. Never been properly schooled, sir, you can tell that….If he’s to be a cavalry horse, sir, he’ll have to learn to accept the disciplines. He has to learn to obey instantly and instinctively. You don’t want a prima donna under you when the bullets start flying.”

Joey’s voice tells us “Now there were endless tedious hours circling the school. Gone was the gentle snaffle bit that I was so used to, and in its place was an uncomfortable, cumbersome barbed bit that pinched the corners of my mouth and infuriated me beyond belief.”

It sounds like Joey would have been a good eventer…but maybe not a dressage horse. In the book, Joey complains about the harsh bit and spurs that Corporal Perkins uses to make him submissive.

This part of Joey’s training was most important, and thousands of cavalry horses went through a similar ordeal. They would have been sent to a place like Romsey Remount Depot or Lathom Park in Lancashire. Later in the war, Romsey specialized in turning thousands upon thousands of North American “mustangs” into instant war horses.

Things looked pretty light-hearted for the grooms at Romsey Remount Depot near Southampton during World War I. Notice the hand-cranked clipping machine they're using. Photo from the Portsmouth.co.uk.

We offer a special excerpt today from the Royal College of Veterinary Science (RCVS) Trust Library in London. My fellow blogger there, librarian Clare Boulton, offers some insight into “equine recruits” at the beginning of World War I:

“In his book, The Horse and the War, Sidney Galtrey states that 165,000 horses were ‘impressed’ by the Army in the first twelve days of the war alone.  Records show that during the course of the war some 468,000 horses were purchased in the UK and a further 618,000 in North America.

“This massive increase in numbers required a rapid expansion of the Remount Service, part of this expansion was the establishment of a new depot at Romsey to receive horses that arrived in Southampton, having been purchased in the USA.

“Construction of Romsey Remount Depot began in November 1914.  It was completed in just over four months, for a cost of £152,000, with the first two horses arriving on 19th March 1915.  The Commandant of the depot, Colonel H M Jessel, recorded its activities in The story of Romsey Remount Depot.

Joey possibly would have experienced a train trip en route to France.

“A fairly typical month was July 1916 when Jessel records the daily ‘ins’ as 2533 animals and the ‘outs’ as 1374.  During the course of the war a total of 118,755 animals came into Romsey and 114,636 were sent out for active service.

“The record of the veterinary work at Romsey for May 1917-October 1918 shows that 5,458 animals were admitted to the Veterinary Hospital but just 35 died or had to be  destroyed.  The most common reasons given for the deaths is enteritis or fractures.

“It would appear from the inscriptions on the paintings by Lionel Edwards that featured in our earlier post at least one of these horses spent some time receiving veterinary treatment at Romsey as the painting  is labeled ‘nasal eruption not glanders’.”

If you live in the UK and are interested in finding out more about the remount service, why not pay a visit to the RCVS Library Trust and look at the items that they have in their collections?

RCVS References
Galtrey, Sidney (1918) The horse and the war London : Country Life and George Newnes
Hume, Robert (2010) The story of the Army Remount Service (unpublished)
Jessel H. M. [1919] The story of Romsey Remount Depot London: Abbey Press

You might also enjoy these article: “The real-life war horses from Hampshire” from portsmouth.co.uk and “War horses trained in West Lancs” by Henry James

Be brave! Entrench yourself in WAR HORSE NEWS on the web: 1) Bookmark WarHorseBlog.com; 2) Grab the RSS feed; 3) Follow @WarHorseNews on Twitter; 4) “Like” the War Horse News page on Facebook; 5) Circle War Horse News on Google +. Leave your questions and comments here on the blog and we’ll try to help you! WAR HORSE NEWS is written for moviegoers, horse lovers and history buffs by horse-specialist journalist Fran Jurga and hosted by Equisearch.com.

Who Groomed the War Horses?

Warhorsemen

Taking care of horses is a lot of work, whether in war or peace. Here you see some grooms in the British military during World War I. It was their job to make sure that the harness was cleaned and oiled and the horses cared for. Sometimes, the task was superhuman, when the horses were affected with mange or lameness. Image courtesy of Nick Stone.

The millions of war horses that were part of World War I required a lot of grooming. In fact, proper grooming care turned out to be critical to the success of the British military.

Perhaps artillery horses at the front couldn’t be properly cleaned and groomed all the time but all horsemen know that a horse in a dirty muddy harness is more likely to get sores than a horse in a clean and oiled harness. That meant a lot of oil and saddle soap. There was no synthetic harness like we have to today, and probably no hoses to clean the horses. The grooms probably were as wet as the horses.

One of the biggest problems that the British military faced was that it was losing more horses to disease and exposure than to enemy fire. Horses tied in a picket line at night allowed for the easy spread of the mange mite from horse to horse. Early in the war, the British solution to widespread mange was to clip every horse from head to toe. That would be fine in summer, but it meant that the horses needed blankets when the weather turned cold, or else the mange would come back. Next problem? Those blankets were constantly soaked by rain. You can imagine how the horses suffered.

Halting to refresh the horses in a stream

The grooms had their hands full. The cavalry may have required that each rider care for his own horse, but the artillery horses and mules and the pack animals far outnumbered the cavalry mounts like Joey in War Horse. In those photo, you see a British military unit pausing in a stream, possibly for the benefit of their horses' tendons. (National Library of Scotland archival photo)

But the grooms had to not only struggle to keep the horses dry and the harness clean; they had to make sure that the harness fit properly, or there would be just as many problems with sores. And as the horses lost condition because of poor quality hay–or complete lack of hay–and overuse, their harness may or may not fit properly. It’s said that the most important tool a groom had was a hole punch and that they were in constant use.

And we all know that you will eventually run out of leather; there will be no place left to punch a hole.

Artillery horses also required properly fitting collars. Collars don’t have much range of adjustment. They either fit…or they don’t. Do you remember the scene in War Horse where Frederick stuffs the rag under Joey’s collar?

Grooms today are often the unsung heroes of the horse world, and their World War I counterparts were just as under-appreciated by historians. The photo provided by Nick Stone shows that this group of grooms wasn’t too serious, but there’s also a possibility, from Nick’s notes, that the photo was taken in Cambridgeshire before either the horses or grooms or both were shipped overseas. They probably sobered up pretty quickly if they served at the front.

To learn more: Grooms today have a new home on the web. Visit Liv Gude’s proequinegrooms.com for information about the profession and tips from the pros on how to care for your horse.

Photo of grooms courtesy of Nick Stone.
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Be brave! Entrench yourself in WAR HORSE NEWS on the web: 1) Bookmark WarHorseBlog.com; 2) Grab the RSS feed; 3) Follow @WarHorseNews on Twitter; 4) “Like” the War Horse News page on Facebook; 5) Circle War Horse News on Google +. Leave your questions and comments here on the blog and we’ll try to help you! WAR HORSE NEWS is written for moviegoers, horse lovers and history buffs by horse-specialist journalist Fran Jurga and hosted by Equisearch.com.