Horse News

Memorial Day: Horses of War

by and published on Horse Nation

“As a person who has enjoyed the company of many horses over the years, I thank heaven that I have never had to take one to war.” ~ General Sir Frank Kitson

The first records of horses used in warfare date to Eurasia between 4000 and 3000 BC.  This Sumerian illustration, dated from 2500 BC, depicts horses pulling wagons.

The earliest written training manual for war horses was a guide for training chariot horses written at approximately 1350 BC followed by a guide to training riding horses in 360BC, written by Greek cavalry officer Xenophon.

Muslims, Knights of the Crusades, Japanese Samurai, American Indian tribes, such as the Comanche, and Civil War soldiers all used the horse as a powerful weapon of war.

A few of the more interesting facts I discovered were “that stallions were often used as destriers due to their natural aggression.  However, there may have been some use of mares by European warriors, and mares, who were quieter and less likely to call out and betray their position to the enemy, were the preferred war horse of the Moors, who invaded various parts of Southern Europe from 700 AD through the 15th century.  Geldings were used in war by the Teutonic Knights, and known as monk horses.  One advantage was if captured by the enemy, they could not be used to improve local bloodstock, thus maintaining the Knights’ superiority in horseflesh.” – WIKIPEDIA

At the turn of the twentieth century during WWI, millions of horses were sent to the war front.

Still, horses were struggling to find their place in modern warfare.  Trenches, barbed wire, machine guns and finally tanks, introduced in 1917, would render cavalry almost useless.  No longer a glorious mount for a soldier, the horses were reduced to pack animals, hauling millions of pounds of ammunition, guns and supplies to the front.

“Horses were easier targets than men, and you could do more damage to the enemy’s supply lines if you hit the horses,” says Simon Butler, author of War Horses.  Still, without working railroads, horses were the only transport for heavy equipment, men and supplies.  8 million of these silent, tireless heroes would not survive the war.  “Of the one million horses which left Britain for the Western Front,  just 60,000 returned,” reports DailyMail UK.

Horse FlagIt was the role as pack animal that would make horses crucial in the Second World War.  The Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Japanese and American (though to a much lesser degree) forces all used horses and mules extensively as pack animals and for scouting missions.  In fact, George S. Patton wished for more on the front, saying, “Had we possessed an American cavalry division with pack artillery in Tunisia and in Sicily, not a German would have escaped.”

The German army used 2.75 million horses – more than it used in WWI.

The Soviet Union used 3.5 million.

Most if not all of these horses died on the battlefields or were abandoned after the war.

Only recently have these valiant actions begun to be memorialized.


And yet the fighting is still not over.  A small number of horses are still required for scouting missions and undercover operations even today by multiple countries.  The book, Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton, details how American Special Forces utilized horses extensively during the recent war in Afghanistan.

Remember to honor all the veterans this Memorial Day, four legged or two.

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11 replies »

  1. There was a story about a horse in fact a mare that served in China during World War II. She carried rounds of am!unition to the front lines. She had been purchased there. It seems she was quite magnificient and highly decorated. When the war was over she was not left behind. The men that she served with made sure she returned to the US with them. It was quite a story. She was retired as a Sargent. She was even a proud mother too. It was a very fitting a proper thing to do when she was brought to the US where she lived out her life. Some of our Legislators need to be reminded of this as they try to keep this new bill from becoming law!


  2. “Giving due recognition to a group of comrades who never gave up and never complained – for the simple reason – they could not.”


    • A Tribute To Our Fallen Horses

      The painting showed a picture,

      Of a huge courageous charger,

      A surging force with eyes a flare,

      And not an equine larger.


      It showed a charge,

      To a trumpets hark,

      With manes that flowed,

      And hooves so dark.


      But it did not show,

      The way they fell,

      In the mud and blood,

      Of an earthly hell.


      No paint portrayed,

      The animals shriek,

      As its shattered leg,

      Began to leak.


      No image of,

      The unknown pain,

      Of the animal’s scream,

      In the shell and rain.


      No account of the way,

      It was forced to wait,

      In a field of despair,

      For an inevitable fate.


      But the painting stayed,

      For all to see,

      The fearless charging,



      And years on they marvelled,

      At the force,

      Of the glorious war,

      And the invincible horse!




  3. Written about humans but true of animal heroes also:
    “Yes, there are plenty of heroes and heroines everywhere you look. They are not famous people. They are generally obscure and modest people doing useful work, keeping their families together and taking an active part in the health of their communities, opposing what is evil (in one way or another) and defending what is good. Heroes do not want power over others.”
    ― Edward Abbey


  4. It seems this is a good place to recall Comanche, who many think was a Mustang, and in photos the resemblance is unmistakable. He horse is often described as the only U.S. horse to survive the Battle of Little Bighorn, but this is not verifiable. He did become an iconic symbol of U.S. Military honour, though, and lived out his days as an American hero. He was also the subject of a song:

    “Comanche you fought hard,

    Comanche you tried,

    You were a good soldier,

    So hold your head up high.”

    -Johnny Horton

    His rider, Captain Myles Keogh, was a highly decorated Irishman who served for three nations and the Vatican. Keogh was killed in the conflict his horse survived. Some reports I read mentioned his body was unmolested in respect of his valiant demise. Comanche’s body remains on display in Kansas as a sort of Indian War memorial.


  5. The Day Winston Churchill Saved the War Horses

    World War I left a lot of casualties in its wake, but Winston Churchill didn’t think that tens of thousands of war horses should be added to that number. During the war, the British military had purchased more than 1,100,000 horses from Britain, the U.S. and Canada. The initial investment was over $47 million USD and that didn’t include the amount spent to care for the horses between the years of 1914-1918. In today’s dollars, the initial investment to Britain was a staggering $2.3 billion.

    The investment in horses had been worth it for the Brits. They had done the work that war horses do. They were used to transport weapons and supplies, mount cavalry charges, pull heavy guns and transport dead and wounded soldiers. The war horses suffered high mortality rates, often succumbing to exhaustion, harsh winters and direct hits from shelling. The loss of life was actually greater among horses than humans, during the battles of Somme and Passchendaele.

    There’s no doubt about it; the horses did their part to secure an Allied victory, but, when the war ended and the soldiers returned to their families, the horses were still stranded on foreign soil.

    Forty-four-year-old Winston Churchill was Secretary of State for War at the end of WWI, but he had also served his time on the frontlines. When Churchill discovered the plight of the war horses, he refused to accept the status quo. The British military had vowed to return the horses to Britain, but it didn’t appear that they had vowed to do it in a timely manner. Horses who had served so valiantly continued to be at risk of starvation and disease. Many of them had even been sold to French and Belgian butchers, which Churchill found to be unconscionable

    Thanks to Churchill’s intervention, additional ships were quickly allocated to return the equine soldiers to the land for which they had so valiantly fought. Up to 9,000 horses per week discovered that their ships had come in!


  6. Thank you for sharing this story. Our military horses were brave heroes. They deserve our respect, as well as our native Wild Horses that we continue to save from extinction. A blessed Memorial Day.


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