Horsing the Army in Twentieth-century Warfare

April 12, 2021 | Blog
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This blog is based on the author’s presentation to the Economic History Society’s annual conference, 2021 (session NRIIE)

by Luise Elsaesser (European University Institute)

National Army Museum. Unloading horses at Boulogne, 1916 ca.

The historiography of twentieth-century warfare displays great enthusiasm for the history of technology, and easily overlooks the use of horsepower. The capacity of the British state to procure immense numbers of horses is striking.  When war broke out in 1914, the British Army owned about 25,000 horses.  Motor vehicles in all British Commands totalled just 507; more than half of these were used in Britain.  By 1919, the British Army owned 45,646 motor vehicles.  Although mechanisation of the army increased 90-fold, the war machinery continued to rely heavily on animal power. By 1917, the army owned 591,000 horses, 213,000 mules, 47,000 camels and 11,000 oxen.

Between 1887 and 1942, the Remount Department [RD], a branch of the War Office, administered purchases, registration, and maintenance of remounts for the British Army.  The department’s first stress test came with the South African War between 1899 and 1902, in which it failed spectacularly. Throughout the conflict, the RD supplied 216,863 horses and 94,030 mules to the Cape.  Local markets were depleted quickly and the national reserve from Britain did not last long either. The RD had to enter foreign markets and turned the operation into an endeavour of global scale.

To rate the diplomatic risk of government purchases, the Foreign Office began to collect relevant information in British consulates across the globe.  Purchases in the Netherlands and Germany were out of the question because of Boer sympathies.  Norwegian horses were too expensive, and the Swedish and Danish markets too small.  The Swiss market was too self-engulfed, and Greece, Italy, and Spain were unknown suppliers of horses. Guatemalan horses turned out to be unsuitable — as did horses from Rio de Janeiro and Venezuela.  Enquiries made at Constantinople, Aleppo, Bagdad, Beirut, Smyrna, and some other cities generated few results. Even far away countries, such as Japan and Thailand, were contacted, although their resources were practically nil.

Unlike a non-state business, the RD had to take geopolitics, not just price, into account. To keep cost down and avoid diplomatic complications the RD purchased mostly in Hungary, Argentina, and the USA. In January 1900, Sir Horace Rumbold, an ambassador in Austria, warned the Marquess of Salis­bury to proceed more carefully and discreetly, without making it known that their purchases were government purchases.  Austrian authorities feared that Austria-Hungary’s neutrality in the South African War might be doubted,  ‘as the Anglophobe press have already mentioned the matter’.[1] To preserve diplomatic relationships, remount officers kept a low profile by operating in plainclothes.

What turned the war into a catastrophe in terms of horse wastage was the unpreparedness of the RD.  Like flies, horses dropped from exhaustion, combat, poor hygiene, underfeeding, and pervasive disease.  Each month in 1901, about 25 per cent of horses died.  Consequently, on average, every horse had to be replaced every four months — an expensive operation.

The main reason for the catastrophe was a lack of qualified personnel.  Some purchasing agents were competent and informed judges of horses, whereas others were largely ignorant.  Exacerbating matters, many inexperienced purchasing officers were hired  in 1899,  which resulted in many mis-purchases as they were easy victims to the tricks of the horse dealers. Several officers stayed true to their upper-middle-class social standing and could not imagine, ‘haggling over anything when buying it’,[2] and purchased at prices that were much higher than true market values.

After the Boer war, remount officials were accused of incompetence and corruption. The army focused increasingly on mechanical traction and the use of bicycles to reduce the de­mand for horses, the suffering of which had become a sensitive moral and political issue.  A better purchasing strategy helped the RD to meet the massive demand for horsepower in 1914, and quickly the RD became a multinational business providing information about foreign markets and remounts to the Canadian, Belgian, New Zealand, Portuguese, and French armies.   North America was again one of the main suppliers, shipping 500 to 1,000 horses every one-and-a-half days between 1914 and 1918.

This brief  overview of my research demonstrates two points.  Firstly, Britain’s ability to draw on global horse sup­plies testifies to its economic strength and its considerable financial and naval power.  Secondly, although the expanding boundaries of the state during wartime might not be novel, the RD’s ability to exploit domestic as well as foreign markets deserves more attention.  The RD’s operations spanned a complex economic and diplomatic network with British state officials at its centre. Thus, studying the RD, facilitates the exploration of the interconnections between business history, diplomatic, and military history.

Despite adaptions to a peace economy, RD officials did not leave horse markets and maintained a reserve of remounts for emergencies. Technological advances eventually ended the military  utility of horses.  Nonetheless, as late as 1942, the British Army used horses alongside new technologies.




[1] Telegram Sir Horace Rumbold to Marquis of Salisbury, 22nd January 1900: The National Archives, FO 437/437 War in S. Africa. Remounts (Horses and Mules). Vol. 1, 1899-1900.

[2] Sydney Galvayne, War Horses Present and Future: Or, Remount Life in South Africa (London, 1902), 50.