War horses – from the Battle of Waterloo to the Olympic Games

  • The belief that war horses are no longer used in battle is not entirely true. The first evidence of horses in warfare dates back to some time around 1500–3000BC, with warriors fighting on horseback from around 900BC. And while battle cavalry was a still crucial element of the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War in the 19th century, by the 20th century, more mechanic forms of attack began to prevail.

    By World War I, horses were no match for tank warfare, and around 8million horses died – nearly half a million of them British. More hearteningly, British Army Veterinary Corps successfully treated over half a million horses during the World War I. A few cavalry units were still in action in World War II. However, they were more commonly used for transporting supplies and troops rather than the previous role in the thick of battle as chargers.

    While horses have no place in modern Western warfare – as witnessed currently in Ukraine – in developing countries, they are still used by armed fighters, and indeed the US Army special forces used local horses in battle in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. However, for the main part, mercifully, a “war horse’s” role is reserved for historical reenactments, mounted patrol and ceremonial or educational purposes.

    What breed is a war horse?

    War horses came in many shapes and sizes, and were allocated roles according to their physical capabilities. Much like the men who were conscripted to fight, civilian horses that were fit and strong enough to help fight the cause were enlisted. We are familiar with the sight of a relative lightweight breed as war horses – similar to a thoroughbred/warmblood, but this is probably due to the fact that the most famous ones were ridden by the noblemen, such as the Duke of Wellington’s Copenhagen, and therefore commemorated forever as statues.

    The heavier draught horses, such as Percherons, Friesians, Shires and Clydesdales, were used for pulling wagons with cannons or artillery, or transporting troops and supplies. These colder-blooded horses were more disposed to remain calm in battle with the noise of gunfire. Joey, the fictitious war horse from the eponymous book by Michael Morpurgo, was this sort – a plough horse who was used to pull carts with wounded soldiers and infantry guns.

    Middleweight horses – similar to the modern warmblood – were used both to pull wagons and to carry heavily armoured soldiers in battle, but they lacked the speed and endurance of the lighter cavalry. They were also used for reconnaissance missions, supply, raiding and communication.

    The lighter, faster types, such as thoroughbreds, Arabs, Barbs and Akhal Tekes were used for cavalry charges and warfare requiring speed, endurance and agility. Because these breeds are not weight carriers, their riders typically carried little armour and used lightweight weapons such as bows, spears and rifles.

    A modern-day war horse

    The modern event horse has very recent roots in war horses. From 1912 to 1948, all eventing competitors were male, rode in military uniform and were commissioned officers. Only in 1964 were women allowed to compete – the concept hitherto being that if the cross-county mirrored a battle field, an injured soldier would continue (thereby not letting down his country – or his team), whereas if a female rider fell off her male team-mates would not expect her to continue. Eventing was often referred to as “the military” in its early days, when the competition served as a the complete test of an officer’s battle charger. The dressage signified the horse’s ability to perform ceremonial parades and show obedient training in formation; the cross-country tested speed, endurance, and boldness as they would need in battle, while the showjumping showed if a horse was sound after “battle” and could recover well enough to perform a simple jumping test.

    Many eventers in the early part of the 20th century were real-life war horses. Seweryn Kulesza won a silver medal as part of the Polish eventing team riding his horse Tóska at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. A few years later, he rode this same horse as his battle charger in World War II, when the mare was killed, Seweryn was captured by the Germans and spent the rest of the war in Oflag VII-A Murnau prisoner-of-war camp.

    Of all the horses competing in Olympic disciplines, eventers – typically near thoroughbred, or lightweight warmbloods with a high percentage of thoroughbred – show the closest link to the battle chargers that fought on behalf of his country or territory over millennia.

    The best war horse of all time

    Like comparing Arkle with Best Mate, it’s invidious to compare the best of a generation across the decades, or even centuries. However, there are a handful of war horses who go down in the annals of greatness.

    Copenhagen: the Duke of Welllington’s chestnut charger in the Napoleonic Wars. The Arab/throroughbred was named for the second battle of Copenhagen, won by the British. His day of days (and consequently the whole nation’s) came on 18 June, 1815, during the Battle of Waterloo, when Wellington’s main opponent, the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, was defeated. Copenhagen was extremely well-bred for the racetrack (though he won only two races), with both his grandparents (Eclipse and John Bull) being Derby winners. Copenhagen enjoyed a happy retirement at the Duke’s Hampshire estate until his death at 28, and apparently had a penchant for sponge cakes and chocolate creams. He was honoured with a full military funeral. An Arabian stallion called Marengo was Copenhagen’s opposite number, ridden by Napoleon – but as he was captured by the Brits in the Battle of Waterloo, Copenhagen gets the nod.

    Warrior: General Jack Seely’s aptly named charger in World War I was dubbed the horse the Germans couldn’t kill on account of the number of misses he survived. He eventually died at the age of 33, having carried his master safely through four years of war, from Ypres to the Somme, Passchendaele and Cambria, finally leading a cavalry charge which crucially checked the great German offensive in the spring of 1918. Jack Seely writes in his book, “In the War nearly all Warrior’s comrades were killed, and nearly all of mine, but we both survived, and largely because of him.”

    Bucephalus: the favourite horse of Alexander the Great, one the most famous generals of antiquity. Legend has it that a 13-year-old Alexander was gifted the horse and he later accompanied him in many battles, with the horse eventually being killed in the Battle Hyadspes River in 326BC. To honour the horse, Alexander built a city named after Bucephalus in what is now Pakistan.

    Sergeant Reckless: unlike the speedy chargers with mostly thoroughbred blood, Reckless was a Mongolian mare used by the US Marine Corps in the Korean War in 1952. Centuries earlier, Ghengis Khan and his soldiers conquered lands from Hungary to Korea riding Mongol horses, so this small, durable breed is no back number in the battle field. Reckless would transport supplies and evacuate soldiers, continuing despite being injured twice. She was so named for her fearless nature, and was given the rank of Sergeant in 1954 having conducted 51 solo rides in one day. She amused the unit with her liking for scrambled eggs and beer.

    Virtual war horses

    Now horses are so rarely used in battle, the closest many people will get to a war horse is the downloadable  “silver dapple black War Horse” in the action-adventure video game Red Dead Redemption 2. This war horse’s profile is similarly invincible to the best of the real-life chargers, in that its “health is three times that of an average horse”, it is the only horse “capable of surviving being attacked by a cougar”, and it can even throw dynamite… This might be one instance when the virtual world beats the real one.

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