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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Hooves@War Veterans Day Salute: Farrier Heroes 100 Years Ago at a Place Called Ypres


This lithograph by Howard K. Elcock depicts Provisional Farrier Sergeant T. Cussens of the Army Service Corps rescuing horses from a stable at Ypres during a shell attack. He received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his brave act. Six men and many horses were killed by the shell. 



Veterans Day is a big holiday. It encompasses a deserved tribute to all veterans of all the armed services. But there’s a bit of a back story, because November 11 wasn’t just picked randomly as a day on the calendar.

November 11 was the date of the official end of World War I. For decades, it was acknowledged as the anniversary of Armistice Day, referring to the armistice, or treaty, that was signed to end World War I in Compiegne, France.

The armistice took effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.

In 1954, after the Korean War, the United States and some other countries changed the name of the holiday to All Veterans Day, and then just "Veterans Day" to reflect the desire to recognize all veterans of all wars.

Distinguished Conduct 
Medal for bravery by non-
commissioned officers
The roots of the tribute day will always be in World War I, which took place 100 years ago. And when it comes to stories of veterans, that conflict never seems to run short of stories about horses and farriers. And when it comes to stories of World War I, sooner or later the place name of Ypres comes up.

Ypres--pronounced (more or less) "Eep-rah"--was like a tangled Belgian knot in the middle of the war. Battles raged in the Flemish region around Ypres off and on for three years. Neither side ever seems to have won a place in history as the victor at Ypres. The place just haunts history.

Images of Ypres show horses in mud: Mud up to their bellies. Big draft horses and mules were charged with transporting supplies and ammunition to the troops at the front lines. They had a dangerous job. Even more dangerous were the risks taken by the rugged artillery horses who moved the big guns forward, or back, as the battles wore on.

Wherever these horses went, they needed farriers. Farriers might be stationed at a depot where they could shoe horses from a forge as they came and went with new loads. Or farriers might be sent to the front, where they could tend to the horses as needed. The horses lost shoes in the deep mud and injured their feet by stepping on nails, shrapnel and debris in their path.

Even today, art students study the movement--or lack of it--in these tragic artillery horses in World War I by L.D. Luard. Perhaps this was sketched at the muddy mess of Passchendaele, part of the battles of Ypres. But better examples of horse movement than his haven't come along. (from Horses and Movement by L.D. Luard, 1921)

As with everything about farriers, there are few official records of how the horses were cared for and who cared for them. But there are footnotes in the official records, and their are memoirs of the people who were there. And there are the official records of the medals that were given for bravery.

If you have the time and patience to look through the lists of thousands of names of thousands of brave men, you will find farriers. Farriers like Provisional Farrier Serjeant T. Cussens. No other record of this man's existence can be found, but he is on record with the British military and listed in the Edinburgh newspaper as the recipient of the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

But he was was also one of the heroes of World War I who was depicted in the book of lithographs by Howard Elcock, and prints of Sgt. Cussens rescuing the horses at Ypres once were hung in households and schoolrooms all over Great Britain.

About the medal: The Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) was instituted by Queen Victoria in 1854 during the Crimean War, as an award to non-commissioned officers and "men" for "distinguished, gallant and good conduct in the field". It was the second highest award for gallantry in action, after the Victoria Cross. During World War I, the Distinguished Conduct Medal was reserved for exceptional acts of bravery.

This photo from the National Library of Scotland shows the Royal Scots Greys calvary unit during a roadside rest, probably in France or Belgium, during World War I. The same unit had served the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium during the Napoleonic Wars.

A little more is known about another farrier hero at Ypres. Thomas Cleverly was a blacksmith's son from Headlington, Oxfordshire. Tom was farrier in the Queen's Own Oxford Hussars, a regiment that had employed his father as their private farrier at home. His brother and fellow farrier Sydney was in the service, as well, but only served for part of the war before returning to help his father.

Tom spent five full years in France with the Hussars and their horses. What must he have seen and experienced? One day, he made the news, and not a shot was fired. The Germans were shelling the British at Ypres. A shell startled the magnificent Royal Scots Greys, the famed Scottish cavalry unit known for their charge at the Battle of Waterloo.

One of the most famous paintings of horses is "Scotland Forever", Elizabeth, Lady Butler's scene of the charge of the Royal Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium in 1815. One hundred years later, the famed cavalry unit was back in Belgium. It was World War I and the setting was Ypres. When the Scots Greys got loose one day and galloped off in panic, a farrier saved the day. 

The Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated, was fought in Belgium in 1815. One hundred years later, the Scots Greys were back in Belgium, just 100 miles down the road from Waterloo. And they were charging again, but without their riders.

I like to image that Tom Cleverly was shoeing a horse, minding his own business. Then he heard the hoofbeats. A stampede! Slowly, he put down the horse's foot he was shoeing, and he laid down his tools. He must have had a plan. Or maybe he was a fool. But he went out into the road and stopped the galloping grey cavalry mounts.

Recruiting posters often showed a different
version of war than the recruits would
actually find. This poster depicts US General
Pershing on a magnificent horse. He 
became famous for his tanks.
His brave and successful display of horsemanship made the World War I equivalent of the evening news.

Tom Cleverly survived the unintentional charge of the Royal Scots Greys. He survived Ypres. He survived World War I. But not for long: he died from tuberculosis soon afterwards.

The cavalry was soon found to be a liability in the trench warfare system that was developing in France and Belgium. The British had expected to need cavalry but plans were made to re-purpose the troops and the horses, as well.

Early on, the fine cavalry horses and even most of the officers' mounts were shipped off. The horses needed were transport grade, and often mules. The artillery horses, of course, were a breed apart; their jobs were secure. But the finer-legged cavalry horses were needed elsewhere.

One poignant story tells howthe 2nd North Irish Horse Regiment was de-mounted.

The men took their identical black horses to the coast, as ordered, where they were all tested for the horse disease glanders. Of the 276 horses tested, 67 failed and were sent to a veterinary hospital. Some could possibly have gone to the French military as remounts. All were ranked according to their desirability. Then the men watched as the horses they had trained, ridden and cared for for months or years were led away to uncertain fates, never to be seen again. They were loaded on train cars and, eventually, ships that would sail them to Egypt for the Palestine campaign.

Then the men themselves were inspected and tested for their suitability to fight with their feet on the ground instead of in stirrups. They handed in their uniforms. They learned how to march. Within two weeks, they were assimilated. 

It's possible that there is no one left alive who remembers Ypres in World War I. There may be no Ypres veterans. But some of those who did survive told what happened there, and the place has become symbolic of all that war doesn't prove. The battles at Ypres waged on and on, but at a huge cost and without a clear victor. It was one of the first places where gas was used in warfare. By the end of the war, hardly a building was standing in the town. Part of the third battle of Ypres, sometimes simply called Passchendaele, has become synonymous with unspeakable horse deaths, as horses and mules drowned in the deep mud.

Now we are all being invited to go there. A group of passionate artist-blacksmiths in Belgium and the United Kingdom have launched a global project to build an ironscape cenotaph, or memorial, in Ypres. It's called simply Ypres2016.

They have made a plan and invite 2,016 artist-blacksmiths to commit to crafting 2, 016 poppies at their anvils; poppies are the symbolic flowers of the fields in Belgium's Flanders region where Ypres is located. The plan also calls for 13 master blacksmiths to make special railings with the help of volunteer crews.

From September 1-6, 2016, a blacksmithing festival will take place in Ypres. The poppies will arrived from all over the world and be placed on the landscape. Additional poppies will be crafted on site for the public to enjoy.

After the festival, the striking high column of steel and the poppies will be re-located to the landscape 10 miles outside the city.

The final, completed installation of the column, the 2000 poppies and the railings will take place on the symbolic day of November 11, 2016.

A Canadian Victory Bonds poster featured a sledge-wielding blacksmith.

The event is in the hands of the Belgian Guild of Blacksmiths (ASG) and the British Artist Blacksmiths Association (BABA). Organizations around the world have been invited to participate and attend. The website mentions the horses and farriers who served their countries at Ypres in World War I. I hope there will be much more information coming about how horses and farriers will be involved in the big events planned.
And if they are, let's all go and watch the hand-forged poppies wave in this historic place.

To learn more: Visit the British website for Ypres 2016.


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