Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Sarge touche une corde sensible...

After reading this, I thought about this:

The horse, until it was supplanted by vehicles driven by first the external, then internal combustion engine, was perhaps the most important power source and locomotive force available to mankind.

Horses were first domesticated between 4,000-3,500 B.C in central Asia – present day Ukraine and Kazakhstan. In addition to their duties as draft and transportation animals, they were immediately recruited into human warfare.

Evidence that horses were ridden into battle as war mounts exists from as long as 5,000 years ago. In addition to cavalry and reconnaissance work, horse power was used to pull wagons and sledges of war supplies, to turn windlasses for raising water from wells and heavy beams to build fortifications.

Chariots appeared on the battlefield around 1,600 B.C., pulled by single horses or by teams of up to six. The chariots were usually crewed by a driver and an archer and made lightning-fast, slashing attacks on enemy formations, then sped away to rearm and, if needed, change horses.
Eastern Han Dynasty tomb fresco of chariots, horses, and men. Circa 200 b.c. Wikimedia commons.
Written training manuals for the use of horses in warfare began to appear around 1,300 B.C., and formal cavalry techniques began to be developed. The use of coordinated cavalry changed the face of warfare and spurred the invention of improved harness designs, the saddle and stirrup, and even the horse collar.

War horses came in all shapes and sizes, from the shaggy, tough and diminutive pony of the Eurasian steppe to the largest of the “slow-blood” draft breeds.

The type of horse employed usually depended on the mission. Reconnaissance demanded toughness, endurance and the ability to forage. Armored knights of the Middle Ages required large, very strong mounts capable of quick bursts of speed and rapid recovery. Military draft horses had to have immense strength and endurance. Mules and donkeys were widely used as military pack animals as well.

We tend to think of the famous cavalry actions of the 19th century – the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars in Europe and the American Civil War – as the high point of horse warfare. The steam engine was making its presence felt around the world and on the battlefield, taking over many of the heavy lifting duties previously assigned to the horse. Though horses still pulled supply wagons and sledges, steam locomotives and steam-driven riverboats moved bulk freight over long distances.
Cavalry Charge Near Brandy Station, Virginia, 1864, by Edwin Forbes. Wikimedia commons.
General Robert E. Lee mounted on Traveller, his famous war horse, 1866. Wikimedia commons.
In the wars of the late 19th century fought in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, cavalry forces usually fought in large, set-piece battles under the direct control of a commanding general, who sighted himself on high terrain with a good view of the unfolding battle. The general communicated with individual infantry, cavalry, grenadier, and artillery units via mounted dispatch riders.

Elementary students the world over – at least into the 1960’s – were assigned to read and discuss Lord Tennyson’s famous poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” The poem, first published in 1884, described a desperate British cavalry charge into a tight valley fortified Russian artillery during the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 at the height of the Crimean War. The charge was a disaster. The mounted force consisted of roughly 600 men and 600 horses. During the charge the British lost 156 men killed, 122 men wounded, and 38 men taken prisoner. Horse casualties were even more severe, with 355 killed and 50 wounded or captured. As the remaining force regrouped after the battle, only 195 men had mounts. At least one surviving horse is said to have received the British Crimean Medal and a pension.
The Charge of the Light Brigade by Caton Woodville. Wikimedia commons.
The style of combat was considerably different in the American Civil war. Though there were many famous large-scale battles, few were European-style set piece battles. In between the large scale battles, there were daily clashes and raids. Nearly all fighting involved horses. No one has even a good estimate of the number of horses used in the Civil War, but at least one-million were killed.

Both Union and Confederate forces turned the cavalry raid into an art form, and both sides used horses to move troops and supplies great distances with astonishing rapidity, often appearing unexpectedly in enemy rear areas, causing havoc and sometimes changing the tide of entire battles. One Confederate General, Nathan Bedford Forrest, is alleged to have said his battle strategy was to “get there fustest with the mostest.”

In the American West, the U.S. Army was in near-constant combat with American Indian tribes for most of the 19th century. One of the more famous battles occurred in Montana at the Little Bighorn River in June, 1876. The Seventh U.S. Cavalry Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, attacked a numerically superior and better-armed force of Lakota, Arapaho and Cheyenne cavalry. Custer split his Regiment and took a 700 man force to the Little Bighorn. His entire force was wiped out. The only survivor was a horse named Comanche, the mount of Captain Miles Keogh.
Comanche, said to be the only survivor of the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn. 1885. National Archives.
But the 19th century was not the end for the horse in combat. Despite the invention of the internal combustion engine, followed by trucks, automobiles, motorcycles and tanks, horses continued to be used in warfare right through the 20th century and into the 21st century.
The Royal Scots Greys cavalry regiment rest their horses by the side of the road, in France, 1914.(National Library of Scotland)
A draft horse hitched to a post, its partner just killed by shrapnel, 1916. (Bibliotheque nationale de France)
On the Western Front, a dead German artilleryman and several draft horses, ca. 1918. Exact figures are not known, but an estimated 8 million horses died during the four years of war. (Library of Congress)
A Cossack soldier shelters behind his horse, Eastern Front, WWI.
A horse strapped and being lowered into position to be operated on for a gunshot wound by 1st LT Burgett. Le Valdahon, Doubs, France, WWI. (CC BY Otis Historical Archives)
As large armies began to field mechanized forces, horse cavalry and a direct combat role for the horse began to be phased out, though scouting and cavalry units fought throughout the First World War. A few even fought during the opening phases of the World War II.

Most famously, Polish Lancers frequently attacked – and were slaughtered by – German tanks as the Nazi’s invaded their country in 1939.
Polish Cavalry during a maneuvers of the Polish Army, late 1930's. Wikimedia commons.

In the Philippines, the 26th U.S. Cavalry Regiment – the famed “Philippine Scouts” – fared only slightly better. Fighting delaying actions against the invading Japanese forces, the 26th remained a viable mounted force until in early 1942, lack of re-supply and starvation forced them to slaughter their remaining mounts and issue the horse flesh as rations.
26th Cavalry moving into Pozorrubio, Bataan, pass a Stuart light tank, 1942.
Even though the role of the horse in active combat quickly came to an end in the early stages of WWII, nearly all Allied and Axis armies continued to use the horse to move supplies. In the European Theater, both the German and Russian armies, each sorely lacking in motorized transport, made heavy use of draft horses to move supplies. Between the two, more than 6 million horses were used.

But the horses suffered horribly. As large, upright quadrupeds, animals which had never developed a ground-hugging avoidance instinct, they were all too vulnerable to modern artillery and rifle fire.

One of the most poignant tales of the wartime suffering horses endured came from Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated soldier of the war and a post-war actor who appeared in more than 40 films, most of them westerns.

In his semi-autobiographical account of his war experiences, “To Hell and Back”, Murphy recounted a grim scene from the fighting in southeast France in 1944. Murphy’s Third Infantry Division was attacking to the north, attempting to join up with Allied forces that had landed at Normandy in June. In his own words:

On the outskirts of Montélimar, a huge enemy convoy has been caught by our artillery fire. In their haste to escape, the doomed vehicles had been moving two and three abreast. Our artillery zeroed them in. The destruction surpasses belief.

As far as we can see, the road is cluttered with shattered, twisted cars, trucks and wagons. Many are still burning. Often bodies of men lie in the flames, and the smell of singed hair and burnt flesh is strong and horrible.

Hundreds of horses, evidently stolen from the French farmers, have been caught in the barrage. They look at us with puzzled, unblaming eyes, whinnying softly as their torn flesh waits for life to drain from it. We are used to the sight of dead and wounded men, but these shuddering animals affect us strangely. Perhaps we have been in the field too long to remember that innocence is also caught in the carnage of war.

A horse, trailing entrails from a split stomach, staggers down the side of the road. Mahler, a gentle Texan who lived on a ranch in civilian life, stops. I hand him the Luger which I took from the German colonel.

He goes over to the horse and pats him on the neck. “What did they do to you, boy? What did they do?” he croons. Then he raises the pistol and shoots the horse behind the ear.

He hands the pistol back to me without speaking.

“Keep the gun for a while,” I say, “you’ll need it further on.”

As we move up the road, he begins to talk. “I’ve known horses all my life,” he says, “and there’s not one dirty, mean thing about them. They’re too decent to blast each other’s guts out like we’re doing. Makes you ashamed to belong to the human race. If I ever get out of this war, I want to live so far back in the hills that I’ll never see another human being.”

During our advance, he steps stoically over the corpses of Germans to put horses out of their agony with the Luger.

The next day Mahler is hit. He is on a routine patrol when he is struck in the back by a fragment from an air burst. His spine is injured; I hear that his legs are paralyzed. Remembering his face as he patted and shot the horses, I wonder if he will ever ride again.

Today in Africa, the Janjaweed militias continue fight from horseback in the ongoing War in Darfur. And horses continue to be used ceremoniously by modern armies around the globe, including, perhaps most famously, those ridden by contemporary British cavalry units.

Have horses seen the end of war? I think not.


  1. I understand Mahler. Never thought I'd be a horse person, but sure as heck, I am.

    Excellent post, PA.