In World War I, more people died from illness than from injuries. The same thing happened with the horses used.
Horses were the main means of locomotion for all war material. The so-called “caissons” which “rolled” were piled up on horse-drawn wagons. Like the soldiers by their side, the horses suffered from poor and insufficient nutrition, dehydration, unresolved fatigue, illnesses and more.
The life of a horse in this conflict was so difficult but vital that the veterinarian of the Third Cavalry, Olaf Schwarzkopf, wrote: “It seems that warring armies are more or less guilty of some form of wasting horses. . The quote appeared in his article entitled “The Changed Status of the Horse in War”, written for the US Cavalry Journal published in January 1916.
Some were given gas masks, chemical protective leggings and goggles to protect them from toxic gases intended for humans.
Contagious parasitic skin infections leading to sarcoptic mange have caused terrible suffering. The itching felt by horses and mules with mange became almost unbearable and consumed precious calories from an already poor diet. The essential role of equines meant that even with mange, they were often worked up until they could not go any further. Then they saw a vet.
The scabies were cured with a special bath of chemical agents toxic to the parasites. Where itchy skin had been rubbed raw, it often took months to heal and regrow hair. They were generally not euthanized at the time as there simply weren’t enough horses for all the tasks they had to perform.
An immersion is a long trough deep enough to submerge a horse filled with toxic chemicals. The chemicals usually included a solution of lime, sulfur, or sometimes arsenic. At the exit of the trough was a long slope with steps for the horses to exit.
Beside the soaking tub were men in raincoats and Sou’wester hats with long-handled scrub brushes. They worked at an evil pace to clean the horses as they went out. They also had their mouths and eyes filled with the solution and peeling skin from the horses. In the rear camps, 1,000 horses per day could be treated, and the solution was replaced every three days.
The injuries sustained ranged from typical battlefield injuries from bullets and shrapnel to skin and lung irritations from poison gas. Single sections were sutured after cleaning. Deep penetrating wounds, however, resulted in euthanasia by gunshot. There was no effective way to treat the resulting infections.
Gas injuries were a long term proposition, i.e. one month. If the horse had not recovered in a month, it was euthanized.
The silent killer however overworked the horses and the resulting injuries and illnesses. It is estimated by some sources that each horse has been called upon to do the work of two peacetime counterparts… and continue to do so until… anytime. Teams of two carried the weight of a four-horse team.
The horses were forced off the roads to open them up to the few faster trucks and cars that could pass. Often this meant hauling heavy goods through plowed fields or mud. Some artillery horses spent 72 hours in a harness and were so tired when relieved that some fell asleep and could not be easily woken up.
Likewise, cavalry horses were also kept under saddle for three or four days at a time.
As for veterinary care, only two were assigned to each regiment of horses, or 2,000 to 5,000 soldiers. It’s hard to imagine.
Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service. If you have any questions or concerns about the animals you want to read about, send an email to [email protected]