Remembering the men and animals of The First World War
Written by Jeff Powell for Cobb+Co Museum
Around 332,000 soldiers left Australia for the battlefields of the First World War, and they took 60,000 horses with them. Another 70,000 horses were sent away to other allied armies. In total, ‘British Forces’ which included Australia, used well over one million horses and mules in the First World War. (War Office 1922:396-397)
The ‘waler’ horses of the Australian Light Horse regiments are justly famous for their loyalty, strength and endurance. Yet most war horses were not ridden, they pulled wagons or carried packsaddles. They shared their burden with mules, and camels and even donkeys. Horses and mules pulled the supply wagons; the artillery’s guns and limbers; the field ambulances. They hauled the infantry’s watercarts, and wagons full of ammunition, tents, tools, equipment. They even moved the field kitchen stoves, and the pots, pans and sinks.
Long camel trains carried supplies across the Sinai Desert, and nearly 5000 actually went into battle in the Imperial Camel Corps.
The soldiers of the Australian Army Service Corps are now almost forgotten, but they kept the troops fed, supplied and on the move. And it was largely the Army Service Corp that trained, drove, and cared for the thousands of horses and mules in Europe; and the horses, mules and camels in the Middle East. The Service Corps consisted of wagon drivers, and ‘grocers, butchers, bakers, saddlers, farriers, wheelwrights and clerks’, as well as men ‘able to train unbroken colts’. (Brisbane Courier 20 August; 14 November 1914)
The Army had humane rules and procedures for the care of all these animals, but along with the soldiers many paid a terrible price. Battalion store depots were often only 1500 metres from the front line. Stores, supply columns, and resting horses in picket lines were targets for artillery barrages and aircraft attack. Mostly the horses and mules suffered from exposure to the elements.
“Whenever possible, good shelter is provided for them, but frequently they have to spend night after night in open fields, often a foot or more deep in mud.” (‘The Army Service Corps’ Daily Post, Hobart 3 Jan 1918:6)
Of the 869,931 horses and mules serving British Forces in 1917, 256,204 died in that year alone. (War Office 1922:396) Millions from all sides died in the War.
Nearly 9,700 soldiers served in the Australian Army Service Corps. 609 were wounded, 34 were gassed, and 102 were buried in foreign soil. Many of their horses survived the War and were sold to other armies or farmers in Europe, but none returned to Australia.
Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War 1914 – 1920. 1922. (The War Office: London).
‘History of the Corps’, Vietnam Association, available on-line at: http://www.raasc.org.au/content/HISTORY%20OF%20THE%20CORPS.html