In Memory of Military Serving Equine Soldiers

Written by Shannon and Brent Ellenton

This year’s Remembrance Day (2019) honoured the many fallen soldiers as well as their trusted steeds. At this service, we honoured the Curzon family for their dedication and service to the community and their country.

In World War I, there was approximately 40 million civilian and military casualties, of which there was 15-19 million deaths and approximately 23 million wounded. Over a million horses perished during the war. For more info on our equine soldiers please read the attached, In Memory of Military Serving Equine Soldiers.

As we pause to remember the sacrifice of fallen soldiers, lest we also forget the contribution of our equine soldiers whose toll has been an awful testament to man’s warring desires.

The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was about 40 million: estimates range from 15 to 19 million deaths and about 23 million wounded military personnel, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.

However, not to be overlooked equine casualties were also shocking. On just one day during the Battle of Verdun in 1916, 7000 horses were killed by shelling. By 1917, Britain had over a million horses in service and by the time the war was over, Britain alone had lost 484,000 horses. But in total, over 8 million horses perished during the war.

In Garry Allison’s book Southern Hoofprints: A History of Horse racing in Southern Alberta, the author summarizes the pursuit and use of Alberta’s horses…

The Military History Journal, Vol. 1 No. 3, states there were no less than three to four million horses in service by the Allies in 1915 alone, “and the turnover (dead horses) must have exceeded this figure by several millions.” Pretty astounding when you think of it, and on top of this Germany was said to have had 4,523,000 horses, and yet found it difficult to keep its armies moving. On top of this the Russian supply of 24,652,000 horses far exceeded that of any other country. Astounding! Horses were everywhere on the western front, and they suffered heavy casualties.

The volume also points out: “Britain was in a much more fortunate position, for whilst she is shown as having 2,231,000 horses at the commencement of hostilities (1914-1918) she had the vast reserves of Canada, South Africa as well as the United States and Southern America to draw upon. France, who started off with 3,222,000 also drew heavily on Canada, the United States and Mexico.” The book, A Century of Service points out the 20th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery from Lethbridge, used horses in one instance, to bring 18-pounder shells forward to the battery positions at Vimy Ridge in March of 1917.

As an aside to the First Great War, the South African War of 1899-1902 — just a decade or so prior to WWI -— had used thousands of horses according to the Times History of the War. The book states: “The Remount Department of the British Army supplied 520,000 horses . . . of which 350,000 horses perished.” Transporting the horses was a major challenge, first across Canada by rail and then overseas via ship.

In September of 1914, the Lethbridge Herald states a Lt. Colonel from the British Army was in southern Alberta buying cavalry horses for the British. He wasn’t just looking for any horse that could carry a saddle, but the best money could buy. In culling a herd of 200 plus brought in for sale the British officer was rejecting those “too low, too young, in bad condition, wrong colouring and weak constitution.” Minimum accepted height was 14.3 hands, and the horse must have the capacity to carry 320 pounds under active service conditions.

With the war well under way the French entered the picture in 1916. Centering their work at Cardston, the French failed to advertise the date of their little buying extravaganza and not that many horses were on offer. However, a large percentage of those shown were sold, with the lighter horses the prime choice. It was the low prices stopping the sale of the heavier horses. As was proven in much later times with the horse factory at Fort Macleod, it wasn’t certain if the French were riding or eating these animals.

The horse buyers for the French were Sam Evans, Hugo Weiss, and Joe O’Reilly of Shaunavon. A train carload of horses left for the east by rail earlier that week. Ken Buxton, a long-time horseman in southern Alberta, recalled an excursion with a horse buyer in 1936, just prior to the Second World War. “I went with this old horse buyer, Tony Ziegler, when I was nine or 10 years old . . . imagine at that age going off from home with this guy to buy horses. He bought a carload of big horses, and I mean really big, off Rick French’s dad along with some wild thoroughbreds out of Pincher Creek for the government. They were remount horses for the army, and they all had to be broke. In his magnificent book,  A Hoofprint On My Heart, Jim Coleman talks about Jim Speers, Harry Roe, and Harry Rudd all being involved in purchasing horses for the French government in 1914. Coleman said the “French were scouring the western world to find horses to equip their beleaguered military machine.” He also went on to say that anyone who had eaten in a French restaurant during the war knew the “horses were used for purposes other than hauling cannon or carrying overloaded cavalrymen.”

September of 1940 it is said that in Britain, of the 5,000 flat racing horses and jumpers, fewer than 2,000 remained in training for the sports, Many were disposed of when the Second World War began. As well many were lost in France in the Blitzkrig, along with numerous American and Canadian horses forced into service overseas.

So more than just a beast of burden, our horse brethren have proven their great loyalty, bravery, and courage. In return we owe them a debt of gratitude and undying love.