Horses of the Great War by John Fairley

Just when you think you could never pick up another book on the First World War, along comes a new one that you can’t put down. If you have any interest in horses and history and the art that goes with them, you shouldn’t miss this.

It is full of improbable figures and impossible statistics. Not least amongst the first is the dashing David Campbell who had won the 1896 Grand National on The Soarer and who,on 7th September 1914, took part in the last lance-on-lance cavalry charge. Afterwards he was found in a field of clover with a revolver wound in his leg, a lance in his shoulder and a sword wound in his arm but told the doctor, “I’ve just had the best quarter of an hour of my life.”

As for statistics; within two days of the declaration of war on August 4th, no less than 140,000 horses had already been bought in Britain on a pre-planned and so ruthless a basis that some were even taken out of the shafts leaving the cart and occupants in the road. John Fairley is particularly good at this, and it’s when you have swallowed the facts that the pictures start to hurt.

80,000 of those horses were dead by December and replacements were sought from all over the world but most particularly from North America from where a mind boggling 768,572 were shipped over for service with up to 50,000 waiting for travel at any one time.  No less than 90,000 were lost at the battle of Passchendale alone and yet a census in the same year, 1917, showed 3 million horses still in Britain. Among these were 100,000 recorded on the streets of London, 25,000 in Liverpool, 5,000 each in Sheffield and Birmingham, and 800,000 in Army service.

Chewing on such facts helps reach into the reality behind familiar battle scenes and indeed the occasional oddly peaceful picture of people and horses resting behind the lines. The famous Woodville painting of the cavalry engagement at Auvregnes where Francis Grenfell win the first VC of the war may be all right for jingoistic post cards but closer inspection cures you from laughing at the old Dad’s Army line “they do not like the cold steel up ‘em.”

A similar look at George Armour’s picture of horses standing, as they did, out in the muddy open, or of Edwin Noble’s harsh study of sick horses trailing through the slurry will stop easy racing references to “images of the Somme” when all we are describing is a three mile chase in heavy ground at Plumpton. In truth, except in the first and last years of the war, there was little galloping by the cavalry on the Western front but it was horses that did all the heavy lifting and paid a terrible price for it. The big surprise of this book is quite how much horse action there was around the rest of world. There were numerous cavalry engagements in East and South West Africa (where 60,000 horses were left to starve) in Egypt, Palestine, Iraq and Syria. In view of today’s headlines, how ironic to see James McBey’s picture of “Hodson’s Horse at Aleppo.”

All this and the lack of an index can be a bit confusing and you probably need a World War One primer to keep up to speed. But again and again you will hear yourself echoing Michael Caine’s famous line: “some people don’t know that.”

For racing it was not suffragettes but the First World War that got women into stables. Russley Park near Lambourn in is where Matt Dawson trained Thornamby to win the 1858 Gimcrack, the 1859 Derby (first time out) and the 1860 Gold Cup. But Lucy Kemp Welch’s splendidly Amazonian picture shows that from 1915 it was the home of the first remount depot run entirely by women who were also, shock horror, to be seen riding out as stable lads on Newmarket Heath.

Yet in the end the pictures on the front and back covers are well chosen. James Beadle’s canvas of the swords-drawn cavalry charge at El Mughur in Palestine shows the warrior horse in all his brutal glory; 2,000 Turks killed or wounded, 1,000 captured and only 16 of our men lost. But war is always more death than glory and, sentimental though it may be, Fortunino Matania’s “Goodbye Old Man” with the trooper cradling the head of his dying horse remains rightly the most remembered image of them all.

 This is an illuminating and sobering book. You should read it.

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