New Zealand’s War Horses

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A postcard showing how horses were used to pull weapons and carry officers.

The presence in Whanganui of Tylee Cottage Artist-in-Residence Cat Auburn, who is creating artworks associated with New Zealand horses that went to war and never returned, has prompted many into asking about horse war records.

Between 1914 and 1916 the New Zealand Government acquired 10,000 horses for use by the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. With an estimated 400,000 horses in the country at that time finding suitable mounts was not difficult, although horses were still extensively employed in agriculture, horticulture, for transport and delivery.

A horse comes from the Strachan family of Okoia

A beautiful mount for an officer. This horse comes from the Strachan family property of “Lornty” in Okoia.

Stock Inspectors from the Department of Agriculture checked the horses for suitability and bought appropriate mounts for £17- £24 ($2,500-$3,500 in today’s money). Some enlisting soldiers brought their own horses which were inspected by the officers and purchased if found to be suitable, then issued back to the soldier for his own use.

Accepted horses were examined and classified as troop (riding), artillery (draught), or transport (pack) and branded with government and individual brands before being shipped to the front. Most of the horses went to Egypt, but they also served in German Samoa, the Middle East, the Western Front and Gallipoli.

Sturdy horses used to drive milk carts through thick mud were in demand.

Sturdy horses used to drive milk carts through thick mud were in demand.

The horses were extremely useful to the troops. They allowed soldiers to patrol wider areas than they could on foot and provided extra mobility during battle. Draught horses carried heavy guns and equipment to save the soldiers’ strength, and carried wounded soldiers from the field so their comrades could keep fighting.

It was hard work; aside from the danger, the horses often carried over 100 kg at a time and faced shortages in food and water, not to mention the new diseases and insects they had to endure. The New Zealand Veterinary Corps did their best to look after the horses, and losses of original mounts were replaced with local animals. They were deemed soft compared to the hardy New Zealand beasts.

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“What rain does at the front – an ambulance with ten horses coming across country …”

Around 3% died during the voyage, mainly from diseases including pneumonia, and many died from disease or injury while overseas. After the war, shipping and quarantine restrictions to prevent disease coming back into the country lead to many of the animals being killed, sold or kept for use by the British Army. Of the 10,000 animals that were sent from New Zealand, only four returned home.

Horses and wounded soldiers outside Zeitoun Camp, Egypt, 1915.

Horses and wounded soldiers outside Zeitoun Camp, Egypt, 1915.

There is a great exhibition at the National Army Museum in Waiouru titled Harnessed: New Zealand’s War Horses. There are uniforms, weaponry, saddles and equipment as well as graphic diorama of a World War I Western Front scene of horse carnage. It’s worth seeing.

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