In 1943, the U.S. Army dismounted its two horse cavalry divisions with their supporting horse-drawn field artillery units. This was in the middle of WWII. Only one year earlier, the 26th U.S. Cavalry had conducted the last combat cavalry charge on horseback on a modern battlefield against the Japanese. It was the “death knoll” that spelled doom for horse-mounted soldiers in the U.S. military. However, a century and a half ago during the War Between the States, horses were the primary means of transportation for cavalry, field artillery, and the thousands of wagons that carried supplies for the armies. Millions of horses and mules were used. Over a million died in service. Just a century ago during WWI, they were a major means of land transportation for the Army. Yet, few people today are very familiar with equines and with the exception of a small percentage who use them for recreation and sport, few have ever had any personal contact with them.
To understand the armies and the war years better, an appreciation of these animals is useful, even necessary. While taking a group of senior officers to the Little Bighorn battlefield several years ago, the program presenter was not surprised when a senior officer, who knew nothing of horses, made the pronouncement that they could literally be treated as one would treat a vehicle when done driving it. His total lack of understanding showed a lack of an ability to critically reason and analyze the actions that occurred in that particular campaign where a number of cavalry horses in Custer’s command died of heat exhaustion on 25 June 1876 — enroute to the battlefield on the Little Bighorn that very day.
How much did equines eat? How much water was required for them to drink daily? How often did they require shoeing? What diseases affect equines? Things that were common knowledge just three generations ago are now a mystery to many but the soldiers 150 years ago depended on this knowledge in order to fight.
Ed Kennedy is a retired infantry officer who taught horsemanship, horsemastership and competed in horse sports for 20 years. A former member of the Fort Benning Hunt and the last surviving Army foxhunt, the Fort Leavenworth Fox Hunt, he has owned a number of horses to include Missouri Foxtrotter, Quarterhorse, Thoroughbred, and Appendix breed horses. He earned his German Rider’s Badge in Bronze in 1993 and has little money left due to horses using most of it.
Please plan to come a few minutes early to the program to take a written quiz on horses in the war. Bring a pencil or pen.