We all know that the Great War exacted a horrendous toll in millions of human lives. Unfortunately this makes it all too easy to overlook the fact that there were countless other innocent victims with names that never appeared on any war memorials. They were horses.
At the outbreak of war, horses were vital elements of the armies of all nations. Yet the British army was strangely lacking in horsepower having just 25,000 animals to call upon. In the opening months of the conflict, it was quickly evident that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France was woefully short of horses. The situation worsened as winter closed in and rain turned the ground to mud for it was proved that horses were far more efficient at traversing heavy, sticky ground than motor vehicles, a mode of transport still in its infancy.
So an SOS went out for many more horses and an equine “call-up” of massive proportions commenced. Farms and stables were ordered to provide as many animals fit for purpose as they could muster. Soon thousands more horses were being ferried across the English Channel to do their bit on the Western Front.
It must have been a terrifying experience for the creatures, particularly for those pressed into service a short distance behind the trenches. They would have to negotiate a landscape churned up by shellfire and full of craters while all the time at risk from stray bullets and flying shrapnel. Cavalry in large formations had quickly become redundant in the face of the reality of trench warfare and the ubiquitous machine gun so the vast majority of horses were used as pack animals transporting ammunition and rations from supply depots in the rear areas to as near the frontline as possible. Teams of horses also hauled heavy artillery pieces.
Another problem was the severe shortage of soldiers who knew how to handle horses; most farmers with the requisite experience were in reserved occupations at home producing food for the nation. Thus men with no knowledge of horse ways could suddenly find themselves in charge of their welfare, with no idea of how to properly look after them and little notion of the kind of loads a horse could comfortably carry. With a daily ration of around 20lbs of grain – about a quarter of what a healthy horse should receive – the animals were often malnourished, too.
Things did improve over time. An Army Veterinary Corps eventually numbering 27,000 men and women was established to look after the many sick or injured creatures. The War Office even got round to designing special gas masks for horses. Their lot though was a hard and heartbreaking one; between 1914 and 1918, of the million or so horses sent out from Britain to support the Allied armies, just 62,000 returned.
The story of our four-legged friends has, of course, been superbly portrayed in the epic film “Warhorse” that was based on Michael Morpurgo’s book of the same name. I have recently discovered an equine tale with a Sussex connection that has some fascinating echoes of the “Warhorse” story.
John Forrester Colvin, aka “Jack” Colvin, was born in 1895 and lived at Shermanbury Grange, Partridge Green, south of Horsham. Horses seem to have been very much in the family blood – his father was an accomplished polo player and Jack’s sister Mary became a leading light in the British Horse Society, eventually being elected president of that body.
When the war broke out in 1914, Jack Colvin joined the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers – dubbed the “Delhi Spearmen” from their exploits in helping quell the Indian Mutiny. Jack’s father had served with distinction in the same regiment during the Boer War. As a Lieutenant, Jack was able to take his own charger to war with him. He had acquired the horse “Hopit” at Tattersalls on 30th October 1912. It must have been an impressive animal for it cost him the rather large sum of £162.
Hopit went to France with Jack, joining the unit on 2nd November 1914. That date means the pair did not participate in the last “lance on lance” action to be fought on the Western Front. This had occurred on 7th September at the village of Montcel when the 9th had bested a squadron of Prussian Dragoons in the course of the Battle of the Marne. After this engagement the Lancers would fight as infantry but kept their horses in support. They functioned as a highly mobile force able to move swiftly to reinforce any part of the front that came under threat. By war’s end, 274 men of the 9th Lancers had been killed.
Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to discover what the pair got up to in any detail but can say that Jack Colvin eventually reached the rank of Lt Colonel. Jack brought Hopit home in 1919 following service in the Army of Occupation of the Rhine. Back in Sussex, the pair resumed hunting and riding in point-to-point races.
When Hopit died at the venerable age of 21 in 1927, Colvin had the horse buried beneath a large headstone in the grounds of Shermanbury Grange. The headstone records that Hopit was present at battles at Ypres in 1915, the Somme in 1916, Arras and Cambrai in 1917 and Roslers in 1918.
Not all of Hopit was buried. Apparently his hooves were preserved as family mementoes, serving variously as an inkwell, doorstop and a pair of candle-holders!