The field opposite the Rockley turning, alongside what is now the A346, used to be called "The Remount Field", following its use during the First World War, together with the Stables by Canadian Remount units. Although next to the railway and the siding put in by Frederick Lineham, the horses were led in strings to the railway stations in Marlborough, where the loading facilities were more adequate for the number of animals involved. A recently published book(1) has outlined the use of horses in WWI.
The peacetime establishment of horses was 25,000. On the outbreak of war this was raised overnight to 165,000 and was accomplished in two weeks by impounding civilian horses, often during the course of their work. About 17% of the horse population was taken into the Army. A year later, 1915, the number had risen to 500,000 of which 368,000 were used on the Western Front. In addition there were 82,000 mules in France and Belgium. The peak was reached in 1917 with 591,324 horses, 231,149 mules, 47,000 camels, 11,000 oxen and 6,800 donkeys (all theatres).
Purchasing commissions (largely civilians) were sent to Canada, the USA and South America to buy horses, which were then shipped in special transports. In the USA, huge depots were utilised, some of which had been built to supply the needs of the British during the Boer War(2). Remount depots in Bristol, Liverpool and Southampton acted as quarantine stations for three weeks until the horses were issued to regiments for training. Experienced horses needed only a week or so to train (mainly to ignore loud noises), unbroken horses required six weeks or so.
The need for four legged animals was due to the unreliability of motor transport and its inability to work off-road in the early days of the war, problems which would not be overcome until the next war, 20 years later (even then, at the outbreak of WWII, the French and German armies still had a very high proportion of horse transport). The various uses to which horses were put were: officers and despatch riders mounts; traction for field artillery (heavy artillery used traction engines); cavalry (relatively few numbers); general transport. Mules could carry a much greater load (up to 600lbs), but were slower and were liable to bray, although most army mules had their vocal chords removed.
The Army had four main groups of horses, those for: riding, pulling field guns, pulling heavy guns and transport. Within each group there were further subdivisions. Officers' horses were lighter boned than those of cavalry troopers, for example. The former were light hunters of 15hands 2" and costed at £100. The latter were heavier with a guide price of £40 (Household Cavalry need 16hand horses at £70). Artillery horses were light draught types of 15hand 2" to 15hand 3" (£40). Carthorses were used for the heavy artillery. Transport horses were "parcel vanners" of 16hands (£35 - £40). Grey or multicoloured horses were coated with vegetable dyes to camouflage them.
The Royal Army Veterinary Corps took care of the animals, with one vet for every 354 horses, but losses were inevitably heavy. By 1917, 250,000 horses had died through wounds or disease. However this wastage was less than 1.5%/month of the monthly strength at a time when commercial firms worked on a figure of 20%.
FROM THE TIMES DECEMBER 11, 1918
The war has confounded many prophecies but none more so than that which predicted the extinction of the horse through the rivalry of mechanical transport. Cavalry, it is true, had few opportunities, but were indispensable to a well-found army. General Allenby’s overwhelming defeat of the Turks was a cavalry triumph if ever there was one. The horse was the life of the transport and supply of the Army in the West and in many another theatre of war. The problem now is what to do with the immense number of horses on the Army strength in all these places. Sir William Birkbeck, the Director of Remounts, estimates that their numbers are not less than three quarters of a million. If all these were brought to England there would be such a glut as has never been known.
What the Army authorities intend to do is to bring back to this country approximately the same number of good sound horses under 12 years of age as were taken from it. This will mean, as we reckon, nearly 130,000 horse. Demobilized horses are to be sold 100 at a time in large towns throughout the country, and by the 25 in smaller towns. Among them will be thousands of broodmares, and in their case the Government will retain a lien on the progeny up to three-and-a-half years of age at £50 per head. The scheme will have to be supplemented by bloodstock breeding on a large scale, for the war has confirmed the value of thoroughbred blood as the foundation of our national pre-eminence in horse-flesh. Fortunately it has been kept going through the war by the sacrifice of disinterested owners, to whom Colonel Hall Walker set a great example when he presented his stud to the nation three years ago.
Meanwhile the question of the disposal of surplus horses abroad is certain to provoke controversy. In Egypt alone there are some 100,000 horses and mules. Repatriation is out of the question owing to lack of transport. Destruction would mean massacre wholesale, and sale to local buyers may expose the Army authorities to denunciation on the ground that the animals are being "sold into slavery". General Allenby does not agree with this view, and sale on the spot is seen as the best solution of a very ticklish problem.
(1) Mud, Blood and Poppycock - Gordon Corrigan
Cassell Military Paperbacks 2004 ISBN-13: 978-0-3043-6659-0
(2) The Story of the British War-Horse from Prairie to Battlefield - Basil Clarke
from 'The Great War - The Standard History of the All Europe Conflict'
vol. 9 London Amalgamated Press Ltd. 1917
(3) Illustration by Fortunino Matania