Real life tales of the war horses

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Thousands upon thousands of men lost their lives fighting for their country in the First World War.

But as a new film released this week reveals, the forgotten heroes of the Great War were the horses who served alongside them.

Many of them were killed in action. Even those that survived until the end of the war did not necessarily make it home, many being sold to French butchers for meat.

The story of these unsung heroes is now being told in Steven Spielburg’s new film, War Horse, which pays tribute to the role of horses and mules in the war.

The film, based on Michael Morpurgo 1982’s children’s novel, centres on Devon thoroughbred Joey, who is sold to the British Army in the First World War, much to the dismay of his devoted owner Albert.

Albert enlists in the army to track down Joey and return the horse to the farm.

It was reading a review of the film that brought back memories for Irthlingborough man Peter Barratt, whose grandfather Albert Hawkins served with the Royal Horse Guards from 1913 until 1918.

Mr Barratt says his granddad used to tell him stories about the horses he served alongside. There were five horses in total – two were killed in action and three died from malnutrition.

Mr Barratt said: “I used to go round to my granddad’s house in Leicester in the school holidays and that’s when I would sit with him and he’d tell me stories about his time in the war.

“He never talked about the deaths but he did tell me about the adventures.”

Alfred Hawkins was born in 1889 and he joined the navy in 1912. Within a year he decided it wasn’t for him and in 1913, aged 25, he joined the Royal Horse Guards.

He knew nothing about horses but he would have a year to learn before war broke out.

Mr Barratt, of Thomas Flawn Road, said: “He used to tell me about the strong bond all the men had with their horses.

“The most vivid story he told me was when they lined up one day behind the English trenches. There were over 100 men on horseback and they had to charge the German lines which were about one mile away over No Man’s Land.

“He had not set off long when there was a tremendous explosion. His horse reared up and then carried on with the charge.

“There was a skirmish and after about five or 10 minutes there was a bugle call which was a rallying call to go back, so they all galloped back to the trenches.

“As soon as he pulled up the horse dropped down dead.

“A piece of shrapnel was embedded in the horse’s heart. It had been injured fatally in the explosion but the adrenaline of the charge had kept the horse going.

“Granddad always said the horse saved his life.”

Horses were taken from the fields, factories and coal-pits of Britain to be part of the war effort.

As well as cavalry, horses were used to pull light artillery, wagons and ambulances, to carry supplies and munitions, and for reconnaissance.

Yet the conditions were harsh. Accommodation for the animals was rudimentary and the average ration for a horse in France was 12lb of oats, 10lb of hay and some bran for a bran mash at least once a week.

Thousands were lost due to the strain of service, disease and fatigue.

The army created convalescent hospitals out in the field for injured war horses and the Royal Veterinary Corps not only treated injured animals but also taught the soldiers how to care for their horses.

Mr Barratt said: “They had a strong bond with their horses and if they were ill they would sleep in the stables with their horses and try to nurse them through.

“When his horses died he wept inconsolably, even though there was nothing they could do.

“He lost three horses through poor food. They believed at the time it was food poisoning by the Hun (the Germans). They believed that the Germans had somehow put poison in the food somewhere up the line.

“It was only after the war it became apparent that during 1917 it had been a very damp harvest in the USA where the grain was coming from and harvesting the grain while it was damp was allowing bacteria to form.”

Incredibly Alfred came through the war unscathed, as did his two brothers who also served on the front line.

Despite the close bond he formed with each of his five horses, he never took up riding after the war when he returned home.

Alfred died at the age of 92.

Mr Barratt has a several pictures of his grandfather from the time, including a picture of the regiment on horseback, his military dog tag and four of his medals.

Mr Barratt said: “In these days of modern warfare it is hard to imagine going to war on horseback, but my grandfather did. I will never forget the memories.”

When war broke out in 1914, there were just 25,000 horses in the British Army.

The War Office was given the urgent task of sourcing half a million more to help with the war effort.

Thousands of horses were acquired by compulsory purchase, including many working the land and in use with public transport. Many horse owners gave their horses to help with the war effort or sold them to the army at prices far below their commercial value.

The supply of horses needed to be constantly replenished and the main source was the United States, with the British government arranging for half a million horses to be transported across the Atlantic in horse convoys.

Between 1914 and 1917 around 1,000 horses were sent from the US by ship every day. Theses ships were a constant target for German naval attack, with some lost en route.

At the end of the war the Government decided it was too expensive to bring back all of the surviving animals and many were sold for meat to French and Belgian butchers.

With the invention of the tank, this would be the last time the horse was be used on a mass scale in modern warfare.