Remembering the Horses of War

A Special Memorial Day Report

Following the end of the Civil War, many communities set aside a day to mark the end of the war and as a memorial to those who died.

It is estimated that 1.5 million horses died in the Civil War.

Not included formally, but most certainly in the hearts of the cavalry, were these horses.

That was not the beginning, nor the end, of the use of the Horse in War, in America and abroad.


Horses have been used in human warfare for millennia, probably since the time of domestication of the horse. Horses were specially trained for a variety of military uses, including battle, individual combat, reconnaissance (scouting), transport, and supply. The term war horse usually refers to horses used for fighting, whether as cavalry in battle or in individual combat. The best-known war horse was the destrier, ridden by the knight of the Middle Ages. However, even horses used for purposes other than direct combat played a critically important part of successful military ventures. There are still some uses for horses in the military even in today’s modern world.


World War I

Horses were heavily used in World War One. Horses were involved in the war’s first military conflict involving Great Britain – a cavalry attack near Mons in August 1914. Horses were primarily to be used as a form of transport during the war.

When the war broke out in Western Europe in August 1914, both Britain and Germany had a cavalry force that each numbered about 100,000 men.

In August 1914, no-one could have contemplated the horrors of trench warfare – hence why the cavalry regiments reigned supreme. In fact, in Great Britain the cavalry regiments would have been seen as the senior regiments in the British Army, along with the Guards regiments, and very many senior army positions were held by cavalry officers.

However, the cavalry charge seen near Mons was practically the last seen in the war. Trench warfare made such charges not only impractical but impossible. A cavalry charge was essentially from a bygone military era and machine guns, trench complexes and barbed wire made such charges all but impossible. However, some cavalry charges did occur despite the obvious reasons as to why they should not.

In March 1918, the British launched a cavalry charge at the Germans. By the Spring of 1918, the war had become more fluid but despite this, out of 150 horses used in the charge only 4 survived. The rest were cut down by German machine gun fire.

However, though a cavalry charge was no longer a viable military tactic, horses were still invaluable as a way of transporting materials to the front. Military vehicles, as with any mechanised vehicles of the time, were relatively new inventions and prone to problems. Horses, along with mules, were reliable forms of transport and compared to a lorry needed little upkeep.

Such was the use of horses on the Western Front that over 8 million died on all sides fighting in the war. Two and a half million horses were treated in veterinary hospitals with about two million being sufficiently cured that they could return to duty.


World War II

Though formal mounted cavalry began to be phased out as fighting forces during or immediately after World War I, cavalry units that included horses still had military uses well into World War II.

The most famous example was the under equipped Polish army, which used its horse cavalry in World War II to defend Poland against the armies of Nazi Germany during the 1939 invasion.

Other nations used horses extensively during WWII, though not necessarily in direct combat.

Hitler’s armies reportedly used more horses and mules in WWII than the German armies used in WWI.

LoneSentry asserts:

Despite highly ballyhooed emphasis on employment of mechanized forces and on rapid movement, the bulk of German combat divisions were horse drawn throughout World War II. Early in the war it was the common belief of the American public that the German Siegfrieds of Hitler’s Blitz rode forth to battle on swift tanks and motor vehicles. But the notion of the mechanized might of the German Wehrmacht was largely a glamorized myth born in the fertile brains of newspapermen. Actually, the lowly horse played a most important part in enabling the German Army to move about Europe.

Public opinion to the contrary, so great was the dependence of the Nazi Blitzkrieg upon the horse that the numerical strength of German Army horses maintained during the entire war period averaged around 1,100,000. Of the 322 German Army and SS divisions extant in November 1943, only 52 were armored or motorized. Of the November 1944 total of 264 combat divisions, only 42 were armored or motorized.


Both the German and the Soviet armies used horses until the end of the war, not only to transport ammunitions and equipment, but also for reconnaissance and counter-insurgency efforts. The British Army used mules in India and Southeast Asia as pack animals.

While the United States Army utilized a few cavalry and supply units during the war, there were concerns that in rough terrain, horses were not used often enough. In the campaigns in North Africa, generals such as George S. Patton lamented their lack, saying, “had we possessed an American cavalry division with pack artillery in Tunisia and in Sicily, not a German would have escaped.”


Last Charge

The last American mounted tactical cavalry unit in combat was the 26th Cavalry (Philippine Scouts) in Philippines, stationed at Ft Stotsenburg, Luzon, 1942, which fought both mounted and dismounted against Japanese invasion troops in 1942.

On the Bataan Peninsula, the 26th Cavalry (PS) staged a mounted attack against the Japanese on 16 January 1942. The battered, exhausted men of the 26th Cavalry climbed astride their horses and flung themselves moments against the blazing gun muzzles of Japanese tanks.

This last mounted pistol charge was led by Ed Ramsey in command of G troop, 26th Cavalry. It was the last mounted charge in America’s annals, and proved the climax of the 26th Cavalry’s magnificent but doomed horseback campaign against the Imperial Japanese Army during the fall of the Philippines in 1941-42.

According to a Bataan survivor interviewed in the Washington Post (10 April 1977), starving US and Philippine troops ate all the regiment’s horses.


Horses at War Today

Today, formal combat units of mounted cavalry are in almost all cases a thing of the past, with horseback units within the modern military used for reconnaissance, ceremonial, or crowd control purposes. The only remaining fully horse-mounted regular regiment in the world is India’s 61st Cavalry.

Organized armed fighters on horseback are occasionally seen, particularly in the third world, though they usually are not officially recognized as part of any national army. The best-known current examples are the Janjaweed, militia groups seen in the Darfur region of Sudan, who became notorious for their attacks upon unarmed civilian populations in the Darfur conflict.

Although horses have little combat use today by modern armies, the military of many nations still maintain small numbers of mounted units for certain types of patrol and reconnaissance duties in extremely rugged terrain, including the current conflict in Afghanistan. Hungary, some Commonwealth countries, Balkan countries, and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia maintain cavalry units as part of light infantry and reconnaissance formations for use in mountainous terrain or areas where fuel supply may be difficult.


Monumental Oversight

It is said that there are more horse statues in Washington D.C. that in any other place in the United States. They do seem to be everywhere.

What you will not see is a memorial to the horses who gave their lives in times of war.

One was created in London in 2004, not just to honor horses, but all animals conscripted into the service of their countries.

My dream is that some day one will stand in Washington D.C.

See a few of the famous horses statues around the District from HorseGirlTV:

Links to Famous Horses of the Civil War besides the magnificent Cincinnati:

Check out the documentary “Horses of Gettysburg” out on dvd.


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