ANIMALS IN WW1
The National Theatre’s production of ‘War Horse’ is enjoying a long and successful run in London. Even though horses on the Western Front were generally valued more than men, their lives were often quite short. Around 2 million horses were used on the Western Front providing a ratio of one horse for every three serving soldiers. Casualties amongst horses were high with around 29% being killed each year - despite the rapid expansion of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps (from 360 in 1914 to 28,000 by 1918). The Vets did their best but the most common cause of death was starvation and despite most cargo space being taken up with fodder, ships just could not carry enough. Germany had a pre-war breeding programme to replace losses, but the British army had to look elsewhere and a million horses were imported from the USA. Horses have more sensitive senses than humans and so the noise of explosions, flashes of guns and smell of blood must have been very traumatic for them. Britain lost around 480,000 horses during the war and when peace came most surviving animals were sold to slaughterhouses rather than repatriated.
War Horse Runs and Runs - The Reality was Different!
Image: Pekinese dogs were a great source of comfort to some British soldiers.
Even before the term ‘total war’ was in common use, some dog owners were making a valuable contribution to the war effort. By combing their pets several times a day, owners of Pekinese dogs helped relieve the suffering of injured soldiers. Many soldiers who were wounded in the shoulder, back or chest or who had suffered blast injuries or burns could not bear to wear regulation pyjamas. As nights grew longer and temperatures dropped, an alternative source of warmth was required. Once spun and woven, the hair of Pekinese dogs provided ideal shawls and an army of owners were happy to supply the raw material. A lot was needed as it took around a quarter of a million hairs to produce one cover!
Dogs at War
In January 1915 Captain McHoul of the 2nd London Regiment was delighted to be allocated a beautiful white steed when he arrived in France. He could look smugly at his fellow officers as they were issued with horses of a more common, boring, brown hue. However when it was pointed out to him that he would be a conspicuous target, his attitude changed. He resorted to dye and smothered the beast with permanganate of potash which unfortunately turned it a high-visability yellow. Whenever McHoul rode his horse, he could be seen from miles away for which he suffered endless jibes. In desperation he resorted to bleach, but this just made his horse resemble some kind of canary – zebra cross. With the help of a farrier, a final attempt was made and at last the yellow was gone. However he was now the only British officer to ride a purple coloured horse! McHoul survived the war but the chances are that his horse did not.