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.
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.
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.
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.