The true story of Britain’s war horses

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A British-based international charity which traces its roots back to the care of horses from World War 1 never imagined that a 30-year-old book could spark such interest in its work.

Dorothy Brooke feeding a horse outside the Old War Horse Memorial Hospital in Cairo.
Dorothy Brooke feeding a horse outside the Old War Horse Memorial Hospital in Cairo. © The Brooke

It began when Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book, “War Horse”was adapted for the stage.

The resulting play of the same name, featuring life-size horse puppets, has played to packed audiences and has now crossed the Atlantic. A world tour is planned.

Now, the hype is building around Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation, due to open in the United States on Christmas Day.

It has all been positive for The Brooke, which works around the world to improve the lot of working animals.

Brooke spokeswoman Kirsty Whitelock said the publicity around “War Horse” had been positive for the charity.

“We’ve had more inquiries, especially from the public, who are moved by the story of the real war horses,” Whitelock said.

“The book and show have already opened the Brooke up to new audiences.”

The charity traces its history back to World War 1, when founder Dorothy Brooke organised the rescue of 5000 former warhorses in Egypt.

In 1914, the British countryside was emptied of shire horses and riding ponies as they were requisitioned by the government – a heartbreaking situation for many families.

Following the war, it was estimated 20,000 horses belonging to the British, Australian and American forces were sold into a life of hard labour in Egypt alone.

In 1930, when she travelled to Egypt with her brigadier husband, she discovered many former warhorses were still alive, but these once proud animals were hungry and weak, lame, ill-shod, blind and suffering effects from the extreme climate.

She wrote in her diary: “Out here, in Egypt, there are still many hundreds of old army horses sold of necessity at the cessation of the war. They are all over 20 years of age by now, and to say that the majority of them have fallen on hard times is to express it very mildly.”

She explained: “These old horses were, many of them, born and bred in the green fields of England – how many years since they have seen a field, heard a stream of water or a kind word in English?”


An emaciated horse in Cairo © The Brooke

New Zealand’s war horses

Of the 18,000 New Zealand horses involved in the South African War and World War 1, only two came home, according to Te Ara, the encyclopaedia of New Zealand.Major, belonging to Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Porter, returned to New Zealand after serving all over South Africa.The other was Colonel C.G. Powles’ horse, Bess, who served in World War 1. A memorial to her stands near Flock House in the Manawatu.

During World War 1, New Zealand horses were used mainly in desert campaigns in Sinai, Palestine and Egypt.

Although shipping conditions had improved from the time of South African War, the horses arrived in poor health.

After the war, some were given to the British Army. There was the option of selling them to local Egyptian and Arab farmers, but they were infamous for treating animals badly, and the troops decided it would be more humane to destroy the horses.

Lest we forget: NZ’s horses at war


She sought out the remaining war horses and organised an appeal in The Morning Post – now the Daily Telegraph.

The public were so moved they sent her the equivalent of £20,000 in today’s money to help end their suffering.

Within three years, she had set up a committee and bought 5000 former warhorses.

Aware many more working horses, donkeys and mules were in need, she set up the Brooke Hospital for Animals in 1934 and opened the “Old War Horse Memorial Hospital” in Cairo, which remains operational today.

When World War 1 began in 1914, the British army had just 25,000 horses. The War Office was given the urgent task of sourcing half a million more to go into battle.

In the first year of war the countryside was emptied of suitable mounts as the government set about requisitioning the animals for the war effort.

They were transported to ports, where they were hoisted on to ships to crossing the English Channel before being initiated into the horrors of the front line either as beasts of burden or as cavalry horses.

Some men formed close relationships with their mounts, but could do little to prevent the appallingly high death rate due to exhaustion, shelling and front-line charges.

Some were harsher in their attitudes; under constant threat of death themselves and having lost close comrades, they became hardened to the loss of their horses.

The horses were essential to pull heavy guns, to transport weapons and supplies, to carry the wounded and dying to hospital and to mount cavalry charges.

The supply of horses needed to be constantly replenished and the main source was the United States. The British government arranging for half a million horses to be transported across the Atlantic in horse convoys.

Between 1914 and 1917, about 1000 horses were sent from the United States by ship every day. They were a constant target for German naval attack, with some lost en route.

The horses were so vital to the continuation of the war effort that German saboteurs also attempted to poison them before they embarked on the journey.

Mules were also a key part of the war effort. They were found to have tremendous stamina in extreme climates and over the most difficult terrain, serving courageously in the freezing mud on the Western Front and later at Monte Cassino in World War 2.

The book War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo.

Equally, they toiled unflinchingly in the oppressive heat of Burma, Eritrea and Tunisia.

There are many inspiring and often tragic stories of the great devotion and loyalty shown between horses, mules and donkeys and their masters during some of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century, as can be read in Jilly Cooper’s moving book, “Animals in War”.

Since its foundation, the Brooke has undergone many changes, surviving the Suez Crisis in 1956 and more recently it has helped Egypt’s horses, donkeys and mules affected by the 2011 revolution.

The Brooke charity stands as a lasting legacy of the tragic history of the former warhorses.

It is now a leading international animal welfare organisation, dedicated to improving the lives of working horses, donkeys and mules in Africa, Asia and Latin America, through veterinary treatment and community programmes.

There are about 100 million equines working in the developing world, all essential to people’s livelihoods as they carry people, water, food, produce and bricks.

This year, the charity will reach more than a million working horses, donkeys and mules, benefiting around six million of the world’s poorest people, who rely on these animals to earn a basic living.

The Brooke’s goal is to increase the number of working animals it helps to two million a year by 2016.

 

More information: www.thebrooke.org

All images below © The Brook

It is buying day, and the stables are filling up with horses - and the usual small minority of old army mules. The Brooke's  head groom, F. Barnaby, is on the left.
It is buying day, and the stables are filling up with horses – and the usual small minority of old army mules. The Brooke’s head groom, F. Barnaby, is on the left.
The buying committee of Rushdi Effendi, Dorothy and Geoffrey Brooke, and Major Heveningham.
The buying committee of Rushdi Effendi, Dorothy and Geoffrey Brooke, and Major Heveningham.
Dorothy Brooke at her desk in Salisbury, Wiltshire.
Dorothy Brooke at her desk in Salisbury, Wiltshire.
Old Bill - one of the first war horses rescued by Dorothy Brooke in 1931. His photo featured in her original appeal to the Morning Post (now Daily Telegraph) in 1931.
Old Bill – one of the first war horses rescued by Dorothy Brooke in 1931. His photo featured in her original appeal to the Morning Post (now Daily Telegraph) in 1931.
Above and below: two of the first horses rescued by Dorothy Brooke after her appeal in 1931. All British army horses were branded with a broad arrow on the left hind quarter.
Above and below: two of the first horses rescued by Dorothy Brooke after her appeal in 1931. All British army horses were branded with a broad arrow on the left hind quarter.

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One thought on “The true story of Britain’s war horses

  • June 23, 2015 at 7:32 pm
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    I have been reading about Dorothty Brookes over the last three years, her work was and is astoundimg. She is my Hero, her love for horses knew no bounds. Mrs Brookes has my respect and awe.

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