War horse facts

Eight million horses, donkeys and mules died in World War I, three-quarters of them from the extreme conditions they worked in. Find out more about these brave war horses.

Members of the Royal Scots Greys near Brimeux, France in 1918

Members of the Royal Scots Greys near Brimeux, France in 1918.

1. From cavalry to beasts of burden - how their roles changed

WWI horses used for transport
  • Many horses were initially used as traditional cavalry horses but their vulnerability to modern machine gun and artillery fire meant their role changed to transporting troops and ammunition.
  • Because military vehicles were relatively new inventions and prone to problems, horses and mules were more reliable - and cheaper - forms of transport. 
  • Thousands of horses pulled field guns; six to 12 horses were required to pull each gun.

2. How the numbers grew

  • At the start of the war, the British Army had 25,000 horses at their disposal.
  • Another 115,000 were purchased compulsorily under the Horse Mobilisation Scheme.
  • Over the course of the war, between 500 and 1,000 horses were shipped to Europe every day.

3. Looking after their welfare

WWI horse skin disease treatment
  • Over the course of the war vets treated 2.5 million horses and 2 million recovered and returned to the battlefield.
  • The British Army Veterinary Corp hospitals in France cared for 725,000 horses and successfully treated three-quarters of them.
  • A typical horse hospital could treat 2,000 animals at any one time. 
  • Well-bred horses were more likely to suffer from shell shock and be affected by the sights and sounds of battle than their less refined compatriots, who could be taught to lie down and take cover at the sound of artillery fire.
  • One-quarter of all deaths were due to gunfire and gas; exhaustion and disease claimed the rest.
  • It could take up to 12 hours to clean the horses and their harnesses in muddy conditions.

4. They used dummy horses too

Dummy horse illustration from WWI
  • Horse carcasses were a common feature at the front, and were sometimes used by soldiers as impromptu barriers.  Thus the French came up with a cunning plan - why not use hollowed-out dummy horses as observation posts? They made these dummies out of papier-mâché and built them large enough for a man to crawl inside and poke a gun through. A telephone wire was even run up from inside the horse back to the trenches so the horse lodger could report back on German movements.
  • Though the Germans soon twigged what was afoot when a French sniper was spotted climbing out of a horse, the method grew in popularity and was a regular feature on the battlefield for the duration of the war.

6. Let them eat oat cakes

  • Horse fodder was the single largest commodity shipped to the front by some countries, including Britain. The manufacturers of Quaker Oats put in a bid to supply army horses with cakes baked from compressed oats and molasses, but this proposal was dismissed as too extravagant.

7. Where is the hoof?

  • Horses were considered so valuable that if a soldier's horse was killed or died he was required to cut off a hoof and bring it back to his commanding officer to prove that the two had not simply become separated.

8. The loss of life

  • Fearing their horses would face terrifying conditions at war, some owners took the drastic measure of humanely putting their animals down before the army could seize them. 
  • In a single day during the Battle of Verdun in 1916, 7,000 horses were killed by long-range shelling on both sides, including 97 killed by single shots from a French naval gun.
  • Losses were particularly heavy among Clydesdale horses, which were used to haul guns.
  • Britain lost over 484,000 horses - one horse for every two men.

The Animals in War Memorial is a war memorial in Hyde Park, London, commemorating the countless animals that have served and died under British military command throughout history. It was designed by English sculptor David Backhouse and unveiled in November 2004 by Anne, Princess Royal.

Horses in World War II

Due to advances in mechanisation there were far fewer horses used by the British Army in WW2 compared to WW1.  There are still horse stories to be told here though, from the plight of neglected horses that never made it back to the UK after WW1, to the concerns of horse owners as WW2 loomed, and the occasions when equids had the upper hand over vehicles during the war.

One of the first horses rescued by Dorothy Brooke after her appeal in 1931

The Interwar Years

As World War II approached, many of the WW1 war horses once born and bred in England that had been sold as surplus in Europe and Egypt were in a very poor state.  They had been so overworked they were practically skeletons and often blind.

Living in Egypt in the 1930s, Dorothy Brooke was moved by the encounters she had with these worn out horses, and felt compelled to write a letter to the Morning Post to expose their plight.  The response from the readers was overwhelmingly supportive, and this led to her founding the Old War Horse Memorial Hospital in Cairo, and ultimately to the work that Brooke is known for today.  Find out more on our History page.

Worried Horse Owners on the Home Front

The threat of World War II meant horse owners kept hold of their old war horses as they were concerned  their younger horses would be mobilised for the war effort and they would not be able to replace them. On the eve of WW2 there were still 311 British war horses alive in France, and along with the public outcry over the condition of horses left in Egypt, this would have heightened the feeling of alarm amongst horse owners. 

MPs in the House of Commons did not want to see a repeat of what happened to army horses after the last war. Government ministers gave assurances that no army animals would be sold, but instead would either be brought back to Britain or shot under military supervision. 

There was also concern from horse owners about the plight of their animals in the event that they might be unable to care for them, with some household members away on duty or involved in the war effort at home.  This worry was not unfounded: at the beginning of World War II, a government pamphlet led to a massive cull of British pets, on the basis that there would soon be food rationing and pet food was a luxury the country could ill afford. Despite some calls in the press to reject this idea, the public largely went along with it and as many as 750,000 pets were killed in just one week as a result.  

London animals like their owners were affected by the air raids in WW2. Whilst their owners spent the nights in air raid shelters, some animals - including horses - were boarded at a local animal hospital.

Where were horses used?

When it came to it there was perhaps less for British horse owners to be concerned about, as only a few regiments had any need to use horses. British troops in Sicily and mainland Italy used mules for transport, most of them sourced locally. There were some exceptions: the Sherwood Foresters infantry regiment, for example, when they relocated to Palestine in 1939 they brought with them a thousand English horses. 

In 1942 the British employed 6,500 horses, a very small figure when compared to the 2.75m and 3.5m used by the German and Soviet armies. All in all the figures tell a story of mechanisation in the UK in the interwar years that thankfully saved many horses from the fate they endured in the preceding war.  

Facts compiled with help from the Museum of the Horse.

Share your war horse story

Do you know of a WWI horse, donkey or mule? Perhaps there's a tale that's been passed down in your family, or a photograph of horses being drafted in your local community. We'll share your memories with local media to highlight the contribution of working equines past and present. Send your anecdotes and photos to [email protected]

Watch footage of war horses in the field

A still from footage of WWI war horses

Head over to our History page to learn about how the fate of neglected WWI horses led to the foundation of Brooke.  

See also

Some useful and surprising facts about our equine friends. Want to know how to tell the difference between a horse, donkey and mule?  Read on!