Horses were pivotal, both on and off the battlefield, carrying men into battle and pulling ammunition and ambulances.
But their casualty rates were even higher than the men they were serving. One million horses left Britain for the Western Front during World War I, but only 60,000 returned. It is thought that more than 8million perished on both sides during the carnage.
Their deaths were rarely dignified. Hundreds drowned in the mud or were left to die of their injuries in ditches on the side of the road.
“Horses were a mute victim of the war because they didn’t have the ability to say no,” said General Sir Jack Deverell, chairman of the National Army Museum.
“We should not forget how important they were; we depended on the horse right the way through the war.”
The end of the cavalry
The use of horses in the war marked a period of change in armed conflict.
When the war started in 1914, both Britain and Germany had a cavalry force of approximately 100,000 men. At this point, many senior military personnel believed in the supremacy of the cavalry attack.
But as trench warfare developed, with the arrival of machine guns and barbed wire, the use of horses became impossible.
One of the last-known cavalry charges took place in Moreuil Woods, France, on 30 March 1918. Some 150 horses were used in the charge, with only four surviving the machine gunfire.
Fact and fiction
Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel War Horse has highlighted the role played by horses to millions though its transformation into a play and film.
As part of the centenary commemorations, the National Theatre and National Army Museum are joining forces to explore the history behind the much-loved story. Travelling with the National Theatre’s touring production, the museum’s team will be visiting schools and colleges to deliver free War Horse workshops to children. They will explore the story’s context ahead of their theatre visit.
Michael, who celebrated his 70th birthday last November, has always hoped that War Horse would help to bring understanding and reconciliation.
“The last of the old soldiers, theirs and ours, of the first World War are now all gone,” he said. “In their place is a growing respect between the nations, and a determination to forge reconciliation and understanding.
“If the play of War Horse — and the book and the film — can play a small part in this new beginning, then I shall be a happy man.”
Immortalised in bronze
The town of Romsey, Hampshire has commissioned a life-sized bronze statue to commemorate the town’s involvement with war horses.
Romsey was home to a Remount Depot which was used to assemble and train horses for war. More than 120,000 are thought to have passed through the centre during the war.
The town is looking to raise £65,000 for the statue, which will be placed at the entrance to its War Memorial Park.
Sculptor Amy Goodman has been tasked with creating the memorial. Ms Goodman has already made a small scale model of the statue which won the British Sporting Art Trust best sculpture award.
“Being involved in the project is such an honour,” Ms Goodman said. “I wish to convey the powerful bond between horse and trooper, despite their hardship through war.”
A challenge for the future
Welfare charities are keen to emphasise the dangers that face horses today while we commemorate horses’ suffering in the past.
World Horse Welfare is hoping to combine the anniversary with fundraising efforts for the present by hosting a Battlefield Centenary ride in the autumn.
The ride will travel through northern France and Belgium aiming to take in three major battle sites — Soignes, Nery and Mons.
“The ride is still in the early stages of planning, but we are aiming to be off on our horses from mid to late September,” said Fran Plume from World Horse Welfare.
“It’s not often you get to ride where the brave once rode.”