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

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