When we think of the war horses during the remembrance period we tend to overlook the men who risked their lives to safeguard and care for them, particularly while in action at the front. These men not only witnessed the horrors of their human comrades being killed and mutilated but also their equine comrades. My grandfather Edwin Clark was one of these men.
Men were often killed caring for their beloved horses.
At about 6 p.m. on the evening of the 30th. September 1918 my grandfather Edwin Clark and his fellow artillery drivers of the 13th. Battery Canadian Field Artillery were “feeding-up” and watering their war horses at the wagon and horse line a mile back from the front line near the town of Raillencourt.
Suddenly they heard an aircraft approaching. It was a German plane and before they could take cover it dropped some newly invented “Daisy-Clipper” bombs into the middle of the horse lines. They were designed to explode a few inches from the ground throwing shrapnel all around. The bombs killed one driver named Wishart and badly wounded nine others including Edwin. He received his third wound of the war, hit by shrapnel in his upper thigh, but survived. Many of the poor horses were killed, injured or fled. The scene was described in this way in the battalion war diary:
The affair was over in less than 30 seconds but the bursting charges, the shouts of the men and the agonised shrieks of injured and terrified horses made a scene of indescribable chaos
I cannot imagine my grandfather's state of mind at that precise moment surrounded by crying injured men, shrieking horses, the sound of shots as horses were put out of their misery and the smell of cordite and blood. Hopefully he was too shocked and dazed to take it all in.
The war horses were viewed as legitimate targets.
The horses and mules were viewed as legitimate targets by both sides due to their importance in supplying the gun batteries with ammunition as well as transporting the guns. They faced being shelled, bombed, gassed, sometimes shot and suffered horrific shrapnel injuries. Many suffered shell shock and remarkably others learned to lie down and take cover when under fire.
An officer wrote in the war diary that:
the duty of the ‘stable pickets’ was an unenviable one, especially at night, when horse lines were being bombed or shelled. Quite apart from the danger of the explosions, there was always the chance of the picket ropes breaking and the horses stampeding. Horses frequently fought and kicked, becoming entangled in ropes and had to be followed and caught in the dark.
Like most of the human recruits, the horses had never experienced such noise, chaos, smells, violence and hardships and they did not have the capacity to realise what was happening to them or likely to happen to them. So everything occurring around them was terrifying until they became accustomed to it.
The ultimate example of man's dependence on animals for solace.
The horses and mules became friends, confidants, fellow comrades and pseudo counsellors with whom the men could air their grievances, discuss their suffering and help alleviate their depression and melancholy. Without their companionship, the physical and mental well-being of the men would have been far worse than it was. The relationship is probably one of the ultimate examples of man's dependence on animals for solace.
The men spent most of their waking hours caring for them often under almost impossible conditions. They fought together, rested and ate together, often slept together and ultimately died together. They were in it together. There is no getting away from the fact that their lives were unforgiving and unremitting, but at the same time the men responsible for them lavished as much care as they could to alleviate their suffering and formed incredible bonds with them.
An officer responsible for vetting his men's letters home wrote in the war diary:
“Drivers often almost wept as they wrote of their faithful friends – the horses – wishing so much that they could be given more feed and better shelter. Such care and attention they gave these dumb animals. When nothing else was available an old sock was used to rub them down or to bandage a cracked heel, while breast collar and girth galls were eased by wrapping light articles around the harness to keep it from rubbing against the sore spot.”
It is impossible for me to visualise or comprehend the carnage and horrors my grandfather must have witnessed to both humans and horses as it is the stuff of nightmares, but I like to think that my grandfather was a humane man and did all that he could to ease the suffering of the horses and mules in his care.