War Horses – the power of hashtags in Operation War Diary
Today’s guest blogger is Heather Collins, a volunteer moderator on Operation War Diary and also one of the Citizen Historians involved in tagging the diaries. She first became interested in WW1 through researching her own family’s contribution to the conflict and has been fascinated by it ever since.
The 2011 film War Horse brought the role of horses in 20th Century warfare back into the public focus and reminded us how much we relied upon them in an age where motor transport was not yet able to go everywhere. On the Western Front in World War 1, horses were used for moving all types of supplies and equipment as well as providing the fast moving fighting arm of the Cavalry. But even knowing how important the horse was, some of the figures relating to their use are still staggering to read:
- Over 1 million horses were sent overseas to war from the USA
- By 1917, 1000 horses per day were arriving in France as remounts for the British Army
- Casualties amounted to about 1 horse lost for every 2 men throughout the war
- Horse fodder was the largest single commodity shipped to the front by Britain – with a higher tonnage even than ammunition!
At the start of Operation War Diary, there was no way to track information about horses at all and pretty much from the first few days of tagging, users were asking why and wanting to be able to follow the story of the horses as well as that of the men. Early on we suggested that people use the hashtag #horses but it soon became obvious that as horses get a mention in just about every page of some diaries, this wasn’t really going to bring out much useful information! A rethink was needed if we wanted to make best use of the obvious desire of Citizen Historians to follow the fate of the horses.
Following some discussion on the project’s talk forum pages, which shows one of the strengths of a crowd-sourcing project like OWD, where users can get involved and have a real influence, we decided to try to define some more specific hashtags to follow particular aspects of the life of the horse on the Western Front.
Two months later we now have hashtags telling us about the condition of the horses, their food, their ailments, horse casualties and their evacuation into the veterinary chain. We have also developed hashtags to look at the condition of the roads and the problems with water supplies as a direct result of these initial ideas.
We already knew how important the horse was in the appalling front line conditions in France and Belgium. Even though motor transport existed, it was often completely incapable of even moving in the quagmire that developed close to the front lines and horses were sometimes literally the only way of getting the heavy equipment and supplies forward. For example in 1914 a single battery of the Royal Horse Artillery with 6 x 13 pounder field guns required over 200 horses to provide the motive power to move men and equipment quickly. So having these additional hashtags has enabled us to look at everyday details that the Units were recording in their War Diaries regarding their horses.
Here are a few snippets of the kind of information we have found:
Water: Units seem to have been constantly struggling to find an adequate water supply for their horses. In September 1916, the 2nd Divisional Ammunition Column sent 1000 horses to the rear area due to water difficulties.
Food : An Artillery battery describes the ration being cut in February 1917 to 9 pounds of oats and 10 pounds of hay as a result of which “horses lost condition during the cold owing to short food”. This was apparently due to increased German U-Boat activity in the Atlantic having reduced the amount of oats coming in from the USA.
Equipment: An ASC Company in the 2nd Divisional Supply Train talks about having “rough shod” their horses in the snowy weather. This is a process whereby shoes with protruding spikes or nails are fitted to enhance grip and it is the origin of the phrase “to ride roughshod over”, The diary goes on to describe the difficulty of fitting the attachments, which they call “cogs”, to the shoes where the existing shoes were already worn thin.
Fatigue: A Cavalry unit in August 1914 describes how the long marches (27 miles on this particular day) are taking their toll on the horses “Some were under saddle 20 hours and water was scarce. Most would neither eat nor drink when they got into bivouac” Most cavalry units already had a number of dismounted men due to the strain on the horses and the Veterinary Corps units were struggling to keep up with the numbers, many of whom simply required rest and food.
Casualties: Mobile Veterinary Sections (MVS) often talk about “horse floats”. This turns out not to be some sort of boat, but actually to be another name for a horse trailer or horsebox. These were being developed so horses that might otherwise have to be shot or abandoned could be recovered to their unit or to the MVS. In February 1915, 7 MVS report having visited a horse left by its Unit on a farm and they suggest it might be collected in a week’s time by another MVS “who have the use of a horse float”. The tone of the diary makes it clear the writer thinks all MVS Units should have such a modern innovation!
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