One for every two men

Horses being unloaded from trains at Ormskirk, 1914. © National Railway Museum and Science & Society Picture Library.
WarMule Fri, 06/06/2014 - 19:20
Minehead Avenue with mules 1915. © Daphne McCutcheon.

With the onset of World War 1, the British Army's remount service was put under a massive strain to supply enough horses because at the time, they only had about 25,000 horses with 6,000 held in reserve in barns and stables across the country. This proved quite a challenge for the service and eventually the Army turned to mules to help with the War effort. I'm not sure where mules came from in England originally, but I can imagine there was by no means a large scale supply of mules the British Army could use, so they had to look further afield to America.

"They're just a more robust animal to deal with on a day to day basis in the conditions of the Western Front."

Andy Smerdon, Great War Society

A commission was therefore despatched to find mules and send them back. One of the ports these terrified animals would have arrived at, would have been Avonmouth as it's one of the first ports to reach from across the Atlantic and had become a strategically important military depot from which troops and equipment were despatched to the Western Front. When war broke out, the King Edward Dock at Avonmouth had just been built and provided a vital rail link to other parts of the country. There was extensive farmland surrounding the area and a depot was therefore established at Shirehampton which stabled and supplied horses and mules to the Front between 1914 and 1918.

One of these farms was just outside Minehead, Somerset where the mules would have been herded down the town's main high street from the railway station towards Bratton Farm which had been taken over by the British Army for rest and recuperation of mules before they were put back on trains to take them to the Swaythling Remount Depot from which the mules were given a final overhauling and dispatched across the Channel to the Frontline where so many would never return.

It was one of the largest remount depots in the country. At the height of its demand it would have held around 7,000 horses and mules at any one time. Just to get the full scale of what the remount service was all about, it had mobilised about half a million horses in its first year. It is estimated around 1,000 horses and mules a week were being shipped into Britain and then sent to remount depots to rest after their long journeys before being trained and sent on to join their regiments for active service.

During the War, four main remount depots existed at:

  • Ormskirk (for horses and mules arriving at Liverpool)
  • Romsey (for horses and mules arriving at Southampton)
  • Shirehampton (for horses and mules arriving at Avonmouth)
  • Swaythling (a collection centre for trained horses and mules from Ormskirk, Romsey and Shirehampton for their journey overseas)

"A view of the immense scale of these operations can be judged from the statistics for Swaythling, as published in the Times in April 1919. Up to 1 April, it had received 342,020 horses and mules (317,165 from the USA; 6,712 from Ireland; 9,357 home purchased; 8,856 returned from France). On that day, 3,530 animals were stabled and cared for by a staff of 757 men."

The Long, Long Trail: The British Army in the Great War of 1914-1918

The ships carrying the mules and horses from overseas into Southampton were also running the risk of being sunk by German U-Boats who realised how valuable the animals were to the British Army. The Army's tactic had to change so a decision was made to ship the precious cargoes into Bristol and then transport the horses and mules down into the West Country to run them on farms. In total 12 farms were chosen - all being close to railway links. From the Spring of 1915, more than 100,000 mules were transported in railway horse boxes requisitioned by the British Army that had been converted for the purpose. Recently, one of these railway horse boxes had been found in a farmer's field and is now being restored by the West Somerset Steam Railway . Horse boxes were once a common sight on Britain's railways and this last surviving horse box was built by Ashbury for the London and North Western Railway.

The presenter, Saul David, said that over the course of the war 484,000 horses and mules died - "one for every two men". They are five words that will stay in my mind for a very long time.

With the end of the War, came the end of the remount depots and over the years that followed, many have left no trace.

However, the programme highlighted an extremely interesting project being overseen by Peter Insole, an Archeologist at Bristol City Council, of a geophysical survey of the Shirehampton remount depot area helping to unearth the history of Shirehampton’s war horses to see if there are any remains of the buildings below ground. While doing research for another project he had found an old map showing the site had 64 stable blocks, 35 paddocks, forage barns, shoeing sheds, quarters for officers and soldiers as well as a pharmacy. After the survey was taken, there was clear evidence of what looked like the stable blocks.

"Life may have moved on, but the memories are still right here beneath our feet where the remount depots stood."

Source: Saul David
World War 1 at Home: The Equine Army


My thanks to Maggie Robertson, who is a member of the Exmoor Fundraising Group for The Brooke Animal Charity, for kindly sending me a link to the BBC programme. It's given me a huge insight into the remount depots.

Add comment

Log in to post comments

Favourite poems

Recent comments