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Horses in the War

Harry Colebourn on horseback

Harry Colebourn on horseback.

Animals were a critical, yet largely unrecognized, part of World War I. While mechanized vehicles played a steadily increasing role, much of the “movement” of the war resulted from the labour of thousands of horses and mules. These animals hauled people, artillery, munitions and various other supplies across hundreds of kilometers, often through very difficult terrain. Cavalry units were still in service in this period and contained tens of thousands of horses. The diverse roles that animals held gave rise to a variety of injuries and other health concerns.


War was a terrifying experience for many animals and Canadian veterinarians spent much of their time treating bullet and shrapnel wounds. Although many transport horses and mules were largely kept well back from the fighting, long distance bombs and shells posed a constant threat. A small number of horses and mules were involved in front line action and subjected to horrific injuries. During the Battle of Amiens in 1918, for example, horses and mules were called on to “go over the top” alongside the Canadian infantry. Although many animals recovered from injuries, proper treatment for bullet and shrapnel wounds suffered from unsanitary conditions and CAVC’s limited supplies and resources. Locating small fragments of munitions was particularly challenging in large animals and many succumbed to infection.[2]


Canadian veterinarians faced a myriad of additional injuries to treat. Some resulted from seemingly innocent objects. For example, one of the most vulnerable parts of a horse’s body is its hooves. Battlefields and their surrounding areas were littered with a variety of debris. Nails used to fasten boxes of supplies together, for instance, often injured horses that stepped on them, producing split or infected hooves. One of the most common sources of injury for horses in World War I was, in fact, other horses. Horses are social animals and hundreds of thousands of them were brought together from all over the world and housed in close, often terrifying quarters during the conflict. They would often get aggressive with each other or scared, injuring or breaking legs.