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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Clipper Folly: A Sad Chapter in Horse Care History from World War I

11 November 2009 | Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog


In the Middle East during World War I, horses arriving from Australia would have had winter coats and required clipping to withstand the heat of the desert campaigns. These men are using the hand clippers that were standard for the task at that time; it would take three men a long time to clip each horse, compared to today. The British military had horses in the winter mud in Belgium and France, and in the searing heat of Palestine. Clipping was a godsend for the desert, but what did mandatory clipping mean for the wet horses shivering on the Western Front?


When war was declared in 1914, the British were not prepared. They had only about 25,000 horses and mules ready for war; they also operated five Remount Depots and four Remount companies, with a remount strength of approximately 1,200 horses and mules. They were going to need a lot more than that. And they needed them almost overnight.


According to the annals of the British War Office, the mobilization of horses within Britain was extraordinarily fruitful: Within 12 days, they had bought or appropriated 165,000 horses from private farms and stables. A year later, they counted more than a half million and five additional remount depots.

Many of the hundreds of thousands of horses serving the British forces in France in the early months of World War I were forced to live in the open, tied to simple picket lines at night. They worked in the mud. When the first winter came, the horses were allowed to grow thick coats to keep them warm, but they soon were riddled with lice and itchy with various "rain rot" rashes, along with mange and skin fungus. These problems spread easily and quickly from wooly horse to wooly horse and on down the picket line.

What blankets there were might be shared between horses, or the horses might be rugged while still wet from sweat, rain and snow. The blankets might be damp and dirty. Many were cared for by recruits with little or no horse experience. 

The British Army's solution to their blanketing woes was to order that all horses be clipped from head to toe so vermin would have no place to hide, and so fungus could be exposed and treated.

Clipped horses are fine in the warm stables back home in England, but these horses lived outside.

It is estimated by the National Army Museum that 75 percent of the horses who died in World War I did so because of exhaustion, disease and infection, rather than from combat-inflicted wounds. Their real enemy was cold and wet.


World War I artillery horse coat clipper
These Royal Horse Artillery men must have considered the automatic horse clipping machine a godsend. But the order for mandatory clipping coincided with a cold and wet winter. The results cost countless horses their lives.

Looking over today's post about World War I and Armistice/Veteran's Day made me remember the post from last spring when I showed the mysterious post card of British farrier Ted Adams in his army uniform astride this nice big horse.

farrier astride war horse


Look below to see what he wrote on the back on the photo; it's quite mysterious. Click here to go back and read the original post.

farrier world war I horse


You'll notice that Ted Adams' fine big horse has been clipped from head to toe; only his legs were left with protective hair. Look in the background and you'll see that there are no leaves on the trees. Ted himself is wearing what looks like a winter uniform.

By 1918, the British had figured out that a sensible compromise was to clip the legs and belly. But by the end of the war countless horses had died for care-related reasons, as well as from bullets and shells.

Survival wasn't always a reward, either: virtually all the horses still alive at the end of the war were sold to French butchers or abandoned in the Middle East, as was the custom.

All photos in this blog post were provided and documented by the astute military photo-historian I know online only as "Sunnybrook". (That's the way she likes it.)

--Fran Jurga


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