All over the UK and the Commonwealth events have been taking place this week to commemorate the Armistice and the end of WW1.

For the first time many schools, offices, churches, organisations and hospitals are recognising and remembering the role animals played in supporting the soldiers.

During the conflict the British Army deployed more than a million horses and mules. There weren’t enough of them in Britain to meet demand, so over 1,000 horses a week were shipped from North America, where there was a plentiful supply of half-wild horses on the open plains.

World War One was a war of rapid technological innovation, with aircraft, tanks and poison gas used in battle for the first time. But behind this modern machinery stood the humble equine, providing the backbone to vast logistical operations of armies on both sides.

They were used to transport ammunition and supplies to the Front and many died, not only from the horrors of shellfire, but also from the terrible weather and appalling conditions. We are told that often hungry they tried to eat their own blankets and some died choking on the buckles…

In 1914, both sides had large cavalry forces. Horse and camel-mounted troops were used in the desert campaigns, but on the Western Front, new weapons like the machine gun made cavalry charges increasingly difficult.

However, animals remained a crucial part of the war effort. Horses, donkeys, mules and camels carried food, water, ammunition and medical supplies to men at the front, and dogs and pigeons carried messages. Canaries were used to detect poisonous gas, and cats and dogs were trained to hunt rats in the trenches.

Animals were not only used for work. More unusual animals including monkeys, bears and lions, were kept as pets and mascots to raise morale and provide comfort to soldiers amidst the hardships of war.

Without the millions of horses, mules and donkeys serving on the various fronts, the war of attrition would have been impossible. Losses through exhaustion, disease, starvation and enemy action were high. 120,000 horses were treated in British veterinary hospitals in one year alone, and the resupply of horses and other animals was a major concern for the leadership of all sides.

At the outbreak of the war, Britain’s horse population stood at fewer than 25,000, and so it turned to the United States (which supplied around a million horses during the war), to Canada and Argentina. Germany had prepared for war with an extensive breeding and registration programme, and at the start of the conflict had a ratio of one horse to every three men. However, while the Allies could import horses from America, the Central Powers could only replace their losses by conquest, and requisitioned many thousands from Belgium, from invaded French territory and from the Ukraine. The difficulty of replacing horses arguably contributed to their eventual defeat.

Regiments and other military groups often used animals as their symbol, emphasising ferocity and bravery, and also adopted mascots, both as a means of helping to forge comradeship and to keep up morale. A Canadian battalion even brought a black bear with them to Europe, which was given to London Zoo, where the creature inspired the fictional character of Winnie the Pooh.

There are many stories of the close relationship between men and their animals, whether bringing a reminder of a more peaceful life at home on the farm or as a source of companionship in the face of the inhumanity of man.

Close proximity also brought dangers to men at the Front. Manure brought disease, as did the rotting bodies of dead horses and mules that could not be removed from the mud or no-man’s-land.

Animals at home also suffered. Many in Britain were killed in an invasion scare, and food shortages elsewhere led to starvation and death. Lack of horses and other beasts of burden sometimes led to the ingenious use of circus or zoo animals, such as Lizzie the elephant, who did war service for the factories of Sheffield.

As the war went on, horses became more and more difficult to replace. Historians say their economic and strategic value outweighed that of a soldier. The sad irony is that, at the end of the war, and after four years of service and sacrifice many were put down because they were ill or too old, and many were sold to slaughterhouses or to the local population. Not many made the journey home.

It’s estimated that more than six million horses and mules were involved in the First World War and almost half died of disease or were killed in conflict.

Those who work with horses tell us they are gentle, intelligent creatures. We owe them a debt and that is why we, in June this year, unveiled the National War Horse Memorial, in Ascot. Poppy our war horse – named by the UK’s Brownies and Rainbows – stands as a symbol of the nobility and courage and immeasurable contribution these animals played in giving us the freedom of democracy we all enjoy today. And, through our purple poppy appeal, the lasting legacy will be the help and support we give to military and equine charities.

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