War Horse

Courtesy of Guelph Museums, McCrae House.

BY DEBBIE MACRAE

The year was 1914. The man was 42, a doctor, pathologist, soldier, teacher, artist, writer and more. The gift – a chestnut gelding, schooled for fox hunting with an admirable conformation.

This is their story.

John McCrae was born in Ontario, the son of a military family, with strong spiritual values and high principles. He was passionate about animals – any animals, but especially cats, dogs and horses.

He was brilliant – and interested in the military. He was the first Guelph student to win a scholarship to the University of Toronto. He joined the cadets at 14 and his father’s Militia field battery at the age of 17. He was unfortunately plagued with asthma, and this condition forced him to take a break in his studies. During his time away, he still managed to teach Mathematics and English.

He courted a young woman who was the sister of a friend, but sadly she met his interest with disdain. He remained a bachelor the rest of his life.

He graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Arts degree and then turned his studies toward medicine. McCrae had a fondness for children, spending his third year as the resident physician outside Baltimore, at a children’s convalescent home. He mentored other students, and it is noteworthy that two of his students would become the first women doctors in Ontario.

McCrae’s military career progressed, becoming a gunner in Guelph with the Number 2 Battery, then Quarter-Master Sergeant, Second Lieutenant and Lieutenant. He became Captain of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada.

He graduated his Bachelor of Medicine degree and received the gold medal from the University of Toronto medical school. Then he interned at the John Hopkins Hospital, working with his brother, Thomas. He was awarded a Fellowship in Pathology by the McGill University in Montreal, but felt obligated to fight in the South African War of October 1899. He requested a postponement of his fellowship and left to lead D Battery, of the Canadian Field Artillery. McCrae resigned from the military in 1904 after being promoted to Captain and then Major.

In 1910, McCrae was invited by the Governor General, Lord Grey, to be the expedition physician on a canoe excursion between Lake Winnipeg and Hudson’s Bay. He was an avid outdoorsman.

But now the year was 1914. Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie had been assassinated in Sarajevo, and the Great War had begun. Britain declared war on Germany, and Canada was automatically at war as a member of the British Empire.

Bonfire was the name of the fine Irish Hunter, given to McCrae as a gift for his enlistment by his friend Dr. John Todd. The horse was a deep chestnut, gentle, playful, and charismatic soul. He was playful – greeting people by whisking off their hats or blowing waffle kisses. McCrae wrote to his sister, ”I wish you could meet [Bonfire], he is one of the dearest thing in horses one could find… he puts up his lips to your face and gives a kind of foolish waffle of his lower lip that is quite comical.”

Bonfire was delivered to the already established Camp Valcartier, a tent city in Quebec where soldiers were being recruited and trained for overseas duty. Although McCrae already had a horse, he was happy to choose Bonfire, after getting the opportunity to ride him.

The Surgeon in charge of the medical services for the Canadian troops, General Jones, had already decreed that as a physician, McCrae had no need for a horse. However, as the second in command of the First Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, a mount was requisite… yet McCrae would be reminded again and again, that he should “not get too fond of Bonfire.”

But he was, and so he would remain. McCrae would send letters, ‘written by Bonfire’ home to his nieces and nephews and signed with a hoof print.

The mass assembly of man and beast commenced in October of 1914, as troops, animals and supplies were transported via the Saxonia from Canada to Europe. 632 animals were stabled in the hold and on the unlucky 13th day at sea, a massive storm assaulted them, injuring both man and horse as they were tossed about on the water. Seasickness assailed them, and the hold was vulgar with stench.

Once they arrived on British soil, incessant rain pounded them for 98 of the 123 days they were stationed there. McCrae was able to piece together a small shelter for Bonfire – only because he was a senior officer, but the majority of horses were exposed to the weather, the rain, the wind, and their health was deteriorating. All requests for shelter were denied in the wake of the war effort. Even shelter in the nearby forest was rejected. On December 2nd, a massive windstorm blew down Bonfire’s shelter. The sicker horses died on the line, and as a result, 200 of the remaining horses were granted shelter at a nearby farm.

McCrae’s love for animals reached out to the other victims of war. Miss Kitty was a black and white cat who came to visit Bonfire in his shelter. She stayed behind in England when they moved on to France.

On the way to France, Bonfire injured his leg; believed to be the result of a kick by another horse. John rode him to the billet in France in an effort to try and work out the injury, but that meant maneuvering around the corpses of dead war horses, a task that challenged both McCrae and Bonfire’s sensibilities.

As Bonfire learned to trust, McCrae, equally, sought the support of Bonfire’s stability and companionship. They were on the frontlines, where the constant battering of the troops, and the calls to treat the wounded, were wearing on his composure. Returning from the front, McCrae would seek the solace of Bonfire’s shelter where he could regroup before retiring.

At the Battle of Ypres, McCrae was exposed to the sting of poison gas – and his asthmatic lungs battled the effects of the gas and the elements. He was told to move north of Ypres and “dig in”, and he did literally just that – by digging a trench eight foot by eight foot so he could treat casualties – both men and animals, even contrary to orders. Mules and horses suffered terrible anguish. He said, “There is nothing I hated more than that horse scream.”

On one occasion a big grey dog with beautiful brown eyes, came running in panic. “He ran to me and pressed his head hard against my leg. So I got him a safe place and he sticks by us. We call him Fleabag – for he looks like it.” There is no further record of Fleabag.

At virtually the same time, Bonfire was in a pen with another horse at a nearby farm when the farm took a direct hit. That horse was killed and Bonfire bolted in fear. He was not found until several days later, but McCrae rejoiced in their reunion when he was recovered.

Shortly thereafter, after much controversy, the new McGill field hospital was established to care for the sick and wounded who were fighting in France and Belgium. McCrae was to be the new Doctor in Charge of Medicine for the Canadian Army Medical Corp under General Jones. Jones continued to warn him not to get too fond of Bonfire, and at one point an attempt was made to take Bonfire away from him. Sir Sam Hughes, Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defense, intervened, and McCrae and Bonfire were transferred to the Jesuit school near Boulogne where more comfortable arrangements awaited.

Courtesy of Guelph Museums, McCrae House.

They soon became friends with a French spaniel named Bonneau, and another dog whose leg had been shattered in battle. His name was Windy, and he was not fond of people who were not in uniform. They remained a regiment of four, until Windy succumbed to being poisoned, likely due to his unpopularity.

It would be only a short time later that McCrae, too, would succumb to the ravages of the harsh conditions he lived and worked in. For respite and his health, he would take long rides on Bonfire through the countryside.

Now believed to have been suffering from post-traumatic stress, McCrae could not justify staying in officers’ quarters when his soldiers were relegated to tent cities or worse in the trenches. The long working hours, his asthma, the gas exposure and subsequent bouts of bronchitis had taken their toll, and he became very ill with pneumonia and meningitis. Still, McCrae would soon learn that he had been appointed as the consulting physician to the First British Army – the first time a Canadian had been so honoured.

Five days later, John died. He was buried with full military honours, just north of Boulogne. Bonfire led his funeral procession on a beautiful spring day, his bridle laced in white ribbons, saddled, with McCrae’s riding boots reversed in the stirrups.

Courtesy of Guelph Museums, McCrae House.

John’s death was widely grieved; as a friend, a mentor, a doctor and an intellect. But we will forever remember him as the man who penned a poem for Lt. Alexis Helmer, the friend that he lost, In Flanders Fields.

Before he died, John knew that his poem had been well-received. After its publication, it became the most popular poem about the First World War. It was used to advertise the sale of Victory Bonds in Canada in 1917 with a target of $150,000,000. It raised $400,000,000.

Due in part to the references to the poppy in the first and last stanzas, the poppy was adopted as the Flower of Remembrance for the war dead.

Bonfire was to have been returned home to the Todd family in Quebec after the war – but, he never arrived. After McCrae’s funeral, Bonfire disappeared quietly – and it is conjectured that McCrae’s friends wanted to honour their friend by secretly retiring Bonfire to the pastures of France – away from the world of war and suffering.

The casualties of World War I were estimated to be about 40 million; men, women and children consumed by the ravages of war. Over 8 million horses died. Bonfire was a survivor.

Special acknowledgment to the Guelph Collection at McCrae House for the photos, Veterans Affairs Canada, references from Canada’s Great War Album, Minister of Supply and Services Canada, and special thanks to Author Susan Raby-Dunne, for references in her book Bonfire: The Chestnut Gentleman.

Read our book review of Bonfire, The Chestnut Gentleman

Bred for Battle

Sergeant Reckless beside 75 mm recoilless rifle, circa 1952 – 1955, Andrew Geer, Public Domain.

By DEBBIE MACRAE

Horses in battle is not a new concept. It dates back over 5,000 years during the period 2500 BC when Sumerian illustrations depicted some descendants of our modern equine creatures pulling wagons. The history of mounted horses in warfare references the period 3000 to 4000 BC in Eurasia, with chariot warfare becoming more prevalent by 1600 BC. Formal training for war horses was developed as early as 1350 BC with written instruction on how to train chariot horses. Training methods evolved, and in ancient Greece, cavalry methods replaced the chariot evolving with saddles, stirrups, and harness.

The Athenian philosopher, soldier and mercenary Xenophon advocated the use of cavalry to the extent that through his literature (the Cyropaedia) he presented that “no noble and good man” should be seen on foot – only on a horse, so much so, that they were presented almost as Centaurs. Xenophon wrote extensively on horsemanship, cavalry and training for war.

Depending on their purpose, horses of all breeds and sizes were used for battle. In the early wars of Mesopotamia, the Steppes of Central Asia and Turkey, horses were sure-footed, athletic and agile. Muslim warriors utilized light cavalry with minimal protection – using fast, fleet-footed horses, while the war horses of the Middle Ages, lasting from the 5th to the 15th centuries, were heavy cavalry – with both man and horse being heavily armoured.

Elite assault forces were created using lancers and archers, evolving from ordinary heavy cavalry – and armour evolved also from heavy mail to lighter mail and bronzed armour. The Celts of Western Europe were believed to have been the first to utilize heavy cavalry in their region – utilizing smaller, sturdier horses, and teams of men with fresh horses providing replacement weaponry and lances for retreating lancers, who could throw their weapons in retreat. They were known as skirmishers – or flank guards, screening their army from enemy advances. The horsemen of Gaul were widely reputed to have been the finest horsemen of the ancient world.

1881 Painting by Lady Butler – Scotland Forever Crop – Public Domain.

In the early 1800’s as the Napoleonic wars evolved, battle cavalry was developed, becoming the critical element in the success of the outcome. The use of armour declined and gunfire evolved, turning the tide again to light cavalry tactics. With the onset of development in the Americas, mounted warfare predominated in battles with indigenous peoples, with mounted regiments prevailing during the American Civil War.

Traveller – Civil War Horse.

Fast forward to the late 1800’s when western Canada was emerging as a cattle haven. Premier ranch and cattle horses were in high demand. The Bar U Ranch in Alberta, established in 1882, was one of a small group of corporate ranches, encompassing almost seven townships at its peak. The Allan family of Montreal, and Fred Stimson (a cattleman from Quebec), obtained two 21-year leases covering 147,000 acres at one penny per acre. Under the name of the Northwest Cattle Company, the ranch, later known as the Bar U, would sell over $300,000 beef annually to the CPR, the Northwest Mounted Police, and the government for distribution to the native people under treaty. It was one of the first ranches to ship cattle to Great Britain, and one of the first to lease their land for grazing. Fred Stimson was also one of the first ranchers in the area to employ native range riders, respecting the Blackfoot people and learning himself, to speak the Blackfoot language.

In 1823, a horse by the name of Jean Le Blanc, was foaled in La Perche, France. This horse would become the Father of lineage for all Percheron horses. In 1902, the Bar U was purchased by George Lane and his financial backers, and it was his goal to breed and raise Percherons, having some experience with them in Montana, as a youth. He believed that any farm or ranch would benefit and started to breed draft horses for sale to neighbouring ranchers. Starting with three purebred studs and 72 mares imported from La Perche, France, at a princely sum of $75,000, George Lane and the Bar U would become the largest purebred breeder of Percheron horse stock in the world, winning most of the awards at the World’s Fair in Seattle in 1909. At the height of their development, the Bar U had over 500 breeding mares and some of the most famous stallions in the world, breeding the finest Percherons a dollar could buy. Today, all Percheron bloodlines can be traced directly back to Jean Le Blanc foaled in La Perche.

At the outset of the war, many of the Bar U ranch hands deployed to the armed forces. With them went hundreds of thousands of horses, but the Percherons, such as those from the Bar U, became the horse of choice with their massive necks, their muscular build, and their solid stature. Their build and endurance were select for pulling munitions and guns through the rain, the mud, and the chalk-base of the Salisbury Plains of England, some of the most horrific battles of World War I.

Horse being loaded – WW1 – Yprespeacemonument.com

The British army only had 25,000 horses in its possession. The War Office was hard-pressed to recruit half a million more animals to service troops. They emptied the British countryside of every animal that could be put into service – from child’s pony to farm-horse, debilitating the country of its ability to provide crops and agriculture for its people.

Horses were transported to war across the English Channel to France, hoisted onto ships only to face the carnage of battle on the other side. Eight million horses, and innumerable mules and donkeys would die – victims too, of the senselessness that prevailed in the four years of the “war to end all wars.” The losses were so great that horses were being shipped at a rate of 1,000 per day from the United States with threats of naval attacks, poisonings, and theft, such was the value of the cargo.

During the second World War, cavalry regiments were utilized by several nations including Poland against Nazi Germany; Germany and the Soviet Union, particularly on the Eastern Front, the British Burma Frontier Force against Japanese invaders in central Burma, and the 26th Cavalry of the American Army, who held off Japanese forces during the invasion of the Philippines. Horses and mules were essential tools of supply and transportation – and it was often lamented that the Americans did not use the cavalry enough. General Patton is noted to have vocalized his concerns regarding the lack of cavalry support.

Both the Soviet and German armies used more horses than they had in the first World War, estimated at 3.5 million and 2.75 million horses, respectively.

In the ensuing Korean war, a Korean race-horse was purchased from a young boy desperate to buy an artificial leg for his sister. For $250 she was purchased from a stable-boy at a Seoul race track by members of the United States Marine Corps and trained to be a packhorse for the Recoilless Rifle Platoon. She quickly became a member of the unit, roaming freely, entering tents at will, sometimes creeping in to sleep out of the cold, and eating anything from scrambled eggs to Coca-Cola. Her name was Reckless.

She carried wounded soldiers, supplies and ammunition, often transporting supplies without a handler once she learned the route. At the highlight of her career, she made 51 solo trips in a single day, transporting supplies and ammunition to the frontline for her troops.

She was wounded twice in combat, promoted to Corporal, then given a battlefield promotion several months after the war to Sergeant. She became the first horse in the US Marine Corps to make an amphibious landing and received a saddlebag full of military honours including: two Purple Hearts, Presidential Unit Citations from two countries, South Korea and the US, and a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal. She was again promoted to staff sergeant in 1959. She died in May 1968 after giving birth to four foals. She was a decorated war hero, whose bronze statue has only recently been dedicated on May 12, 2018, in the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky among her racing peers.

Creatures of peace, which by the designs of men, became instruments of war. Lest we forget.

Bonfire – The Chestnut Gentleman

Lt. McCrae stands with Bonfire and ....

John McCrae stands with Bonfire and the French Spaniel, Bonneau.

 

Drafted in the trenches of Ypres, in the dark hours of May 2, 1915, the compelling elegy In Flanders Fields, was written by John McCrae and inspired by the death of a friend.

Most commonwealth citizens know of the WWI poem – and every November the recitation is honoured and re-dedicated to those who lost their lives in fighting for our freedom. But how did a poem, drafted on the tattered pages of a notebook and penned amidst the guns of war, become such an indelible tribute and an inspiration for our freedom?

Tracing the footsteps of John McCrae and researched from the back of a motorcycle, Bonfire – The Chestnut Gentleman is the true story of John McCrae’s journey through WWI, as told by his war horse, Bonfire, written by Susan Raby-Dunne.

bonfire-cover-web

This book chronicles the true story of John McCrae’s journey through WWI and includes historic archival pictures of places, beloved animals and special moments along the way. Meet the mascot bear Winnie from Winnipeg, the inspiration behind “Winnie the Pooh”, the fearless Labrador Windy, and faithful Bonneau.

Based on real events, this is the story of a bond between a soldier and a horse that could not be broken. It’s also a story of the war that shaped Canada, and the powerful true events behind the writing of the poem, In Flanders Fields.

Author, Susan Raby-Dunne lives in the foothills of southwestern Alberta and belongs to the Monday Morning Writers Group. For more information, please visit: www.thebonfirebook.com

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