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It is estimated that ten million fighting men, almost 800,000 of them British, died in the First World War. Only a fraction of those who were killed have a known grave – thousands were simply blown into fragments or lie buried, their graves unknown, in foreign soil. In the decades following the war’s end hundreds of books appeared written by soldiers, politicians, poets and preachers, each trying to make sense of the conflict, the appalling conditions and the seemingly pointless slaughter. Simply put, the 1914-18 war has become a metaphor for hell on earth.
Alongside this tide of human cannon fodder was formed an equally large army of horses and mules – transport animals and cavalry mounts essential to the bloody business ahead. While men cheerfully volunteered in their tens of thousands, similar numbers of horses were being stripped from farms, liveries, hunt stables and from private ownership, packed on to ships and sent overseas. Over 8 million animals were thus engaged in the war worldwide. On the Western Front alone a total of a million horses died. Of those used by the British Army, themselves numbering almost a million, only around 60 000 are said to have been returned to the Britain at the war’s end.
The War Horses concentrates upon those groups of animals who were requisitioned rather than those ‘professionally’ employed by the cavalry, in other words the horses, mules and donkeys who took on the drudgery of heaving rations, guns and munitions up to the front line, returning with wounded and maimed men. The author draws upon over 200 photographs and eye-witness accounts to illustrate the actuality of war and the vital role played by the horse on the Western Front. Poignant memoirs reveal the bond formed between the fighting men and the animals in their care; remarkable stories of compassion and kindness set against the harrowing background of ‘The War to End All Wars’.
Simon Butler lives and works in the Westcountry. This book grew out of his interest in the Great War and his friendship with those who keep alive the bond between humans and the horse.