Carried into Battle - The history of horses and war

Carried into Battle - The history of horses and war

Breed Facts

Chariot horses

About 4000 years ago the first spoke wheel chariots appear. Used to carry troops into battle and as mobile archery platforms, this new warfare spread across Europe and Asia and the horse’s place in battle was sealed. Best known as the mode of transport for the Egyptian and Hittite armies, and later the early British, the peak of chariot warfare can be seen as the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC. Some 5000 or more chariots lined up as the Hittites who controlled much of what is now Turkey, the Syrian Coast and Lebanon, fought the Egyptian armies who has spread beyond what is now Egypt and controlled modern day Israel and Palestine.

In charge of the Egyptian army was the celebrated Ramses the Great, and drawing him into battle were his two favoured war horses Victory in Thebes and Mut is Contented. In his poem to commemorate the battle it is these two chargers that he states supported him when he was alone fighting in foreign countries. Since this great Pharaoh rarely thought to mention the humans that also fought alongside him, the mention of these two is a show of how much he treasured them. Some Egyptians would literally take their animals to the tomb with them, and from these remains we can see that the horses were smaller than modern breeds, an average of 13.2 hh, and show similarities to the modern Arabian breed.

It’s unclear exactly what happened in this great battle, as both sides claimed victory, but it seems that Victory in Thebes and Mut is Contented survived the battle and lived to return to Egypt with their royal owner. Ramses II wasn’t alone in giving his horses names to inspire fear in the enemy, other great Royal chariot horses from Egypt include Trampler of Foreign Countries and Amun gives Might.

Roman Cavalry

Possibly due to the small size of the Chariot horses breed by the Egyptians and other nations of the time, riding was considered undignified. During the period of Ancient Greece the cavalry began to become a part of the battlefield, and by the time on the Roman Republic cavalry was a part of the army.

However it seems that the horses used by the Roman cavalry, were a long way from the great horses of the knights of the medieval period. In fact it seems that the horses would have been around 13 to 14 hh, although some may have been as tall as 15 hh. Many reanactment riders today consider the Welsh Cob to be the ideal horse, whilst the Dartmoor and the Fell ponies are also close analogies to the Roman mounts, and well suited to the climate of Britain that would have greeted the Roman army. Some authors believe the Arab would have been used, especially for scouts and other fast moving troops.

It seems that horses were as much revered by the Emperors as the Pharaohs. One of the Emperor Caligula’s more famous statements is that he planned to make his horse a consul, a member of the government in effect. Was this a joke at the senate’s expense, or was Caligula mad enough to actually appoint his horse to help run the country. Either way it seems that Incitatus, whose name means swift or at full gallop, was a pampered pet. Later writers said that he lived in a stable of marble, had an ivory manger, purple blankets (the most costly of colours) and a collar of gem stones, his oats were mixed with gold flake and he had his own servants. Incitatus was lucky to have lived in the period of relative peace and was only used for chariot racing.

Medieval horses

The medieval period may have been the pinnacle of warfare for the horse. Although the breeds of these mounts are not known, we know of types of horse used then, the most famous of which the Destrier, considered a ‘tall and majestic’ horse they were prided for their great strength. The Courser were light fast and strong and valued for their abilities in battle, the Honny was a small horse developed in Ireland that was quick and agile and used in skirmishing, whilst the Rouncey was the more general purpose horse. Knights would keep Rounceys for use by their squires and other members of their retinue, although on occasion the nature of the battle would dictate the type of horse. In 1327 a summons to war expressly states that all riders will be mounted on Rounceys rather than Destriers, as speed will be needed.

When we think of the Knights of Old riding their chargers into battle it is the Destrier that we are probably thinking of. It was always thought that the horses needed to carry the armour, both their knights and their own, would have had to be 18 hh + but armour at the Royal Armoury in Leeds didn’t fit the tall horses that stand almost as tall as modern Shire horses, but instead small mounts around 15 hh were able to wear the replica armour. Henry VIII had at least one favourite horse in his stables referred to as a Barbary, he purchased at least 7 Barb mares and one stallion, when the royal stables were sold when Cromwell came to power these smaller horses formed part of the lines that would become the thoroughbred breed.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

One troop of horses are probably better known than any other are the noble 600, the men who charged their horses into the direct line of cannon fire. Immortalised in words by Alfred Lord Tennyson…

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

Somewhere along the way an order was misheard, misspoken or misunderstood, and the Light cavalry with their lighter armour and their faster horses was sent up a valley towards the enemy guns. They managed to reach the guns and drive back the enemies, but then there was little they could do, instead they were forced to ride back down the valley with gun fire on both sides, whilst the Russians recovered the guns the Brigade had fought so hard to win.

They were the amongst the last we saw of horse and hero fighting on the frontlines in modern warfare, from then on the Hero walked on alone. There was a different purpose for the horse on the battle field.

Horses in the World Wars

The First World War spelled the end for the use of mounted cavalry on the battlefield. Machine guns, barbed wire, trench warfare and tanks were enemies that the horse and rider couldn’t face. A million horses were sent to the front line as a part of the British Army alone, but only 62 000 returned. Instead they became the transport for scouts and messages, in this role they were so successful that in 1917 troops were told the loss of a horse was of greater tactical concern than the loss of a man. By the end of the war Germany had so few horses left that it is likely this contributed to their defeat.

By the Second World War most of the mounted divisions had been mechanised, and the cavalry rode tanks into battle, but for Germany with their lack of petroleum products the horse remained a key part of the armed forces. The number of deaths however were staggering, in 2 months over the winter on the Eastern Front the Germans lost almost 180 000 horses. In total 2.75 million horses and mules were used by the German army, mostly as the engines to move machinery, supplies, messages and men around the battle field.

Horses are still a part of the armed forces, although in a ceremonial role only. The British army had 501 horses in 2012, but to put this in perspective they only had 334 tanks.

Modern life may have left these heavy weights of the battlefield behind, but we owe them more than we can imagine, the millions that pulled chariots, carried men and faced the enemy and charged. They helped shape the nations that we see today.

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