Horses still victims of war, 100 years on from WW1

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A century has passed since the end of the First World War, and animals continue to be innocent victims of human conflict around the world.

November 11 marks a century since the end of the Great War. About 16 million animals were put into service on all sides during the war, including one million horses and mules used by Britain. These animals faced terrible conditions, transporting ammunition, messages, food rations and supplies. They hauled guns and pulled ambulances, while cavalry horses often led the charge on battlegrounds. Nine million horses, donkeys and other animals were killed.

Today marks the launch of a campaign by international animal charity SPANA to remember the many millions of animals that have been used, and killed, in one hundred years of war.

The campaign is being launched by former British politician and SPANA ambassador Ann Widdecombe.

Despite increasing mechanisation, animals were still widely used during WW2 by forces on both sides. Britain – the first nation to motorise its army – still had about 200,000 animals in service, while the US military used 14,000 mules in Italy alone. The German Army lost more than 179,000 horses in two months on the Eastern Front.

While the use of animals in the front line is now less common, animals continue to suffer in conflicts today. In Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan, there have been numerous incidents of animal-borne bomb attacks, in which insurgents have attached explosive devices to donkeys and horses in order to target crowded areas and convoys.

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Animals have also been deliberately targeted. During the Gulf War, more than 80 per cent of livestock in Kuwait died, while in the late 1990s, Kosovo’s cattle population halved to 200,000.

Wars have also had damaging consequences for animals long after the final shots have been fired. In the 20 years following the Vietnam War, about 40,000 animals were estimated to have been killed by landmines.

“On this significant anniversary of the First World War, it’s so important that we first and foremost remember the people who lost their lives during this terrible conflict and then consider also those who returned disabled and disfigured and the civilians who died,” Widdecombe said.

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“They faced unimaginable horrors. Then, as we stop to remember all those who suffered and died a century ago, we must also not forget that animals continue to be innocent victims in brutal conflicts across the world today.”

SPANA provides free veterinary treatment to working animals in developing countries, including in conflict zones. In recent years, the charity had worked in war zones, from Kosovo and Iraq to Afghanistan, to provide urgent veterinary treatment to animals in severe distress.

Its work has included setting up a mobile veterinary clinic in Iraq in 2003. Following a request for urgent help for equines and farm animals, SPANA assisted animals with veterinary medicines and provided thirty tons of fodder.

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SPANA also worked in Helmand province, Afghanistan, where local people are heavily reliant on working animals. In 2010, SPANA worked to rebuild shattered infrastructure, training animal health workers and equipping them with worming and vaccination kits.

“Our work eases suffering and also helps build the peace among communities who continue to rely on animals,” SPANA Chief Executive Geoffrey Dennis said.

“As we commemorate Armistice Day, it is a sad reality that the appalling suffering of animals in conflict zones is not a distant memory, consigned to history. But while there are animals in desperate need, during times of war and peace, it is vital that help is on hand for them.”

Headquarters staff at the Imperial Camel Corps in Egypt in 1916.
Headquarters staff at the Imperial Camel Corps in Egypt in 1916. © Crown Copyright


1914-1918 – First World War: More than 16 million animals were made to serve on all sides, with nine million killed (including eight million horses, mules and donkeys).

1914 – First World War: At the start of the war, the British Army owned only 25,000 horses.

1916 – First World War: 7000 horses died in one day alone at the Battle of Verdun.

1917 – First World War: Britain had more than one million horses and mules in service (over the course of the war Britain lost more than 484,000 horses).

1918 – First World War: The British Army Veterinary Corps gained the ‘Royal’ prefix for its efforts in mitigating animal suffering. This was the first war in which a trained veterinary service existed.

1936-1939 – Spanish Civil War: The war saw the demise of roughly half of Spanish livestock, and post-war Spain had to import thousands of working mules from overseas.

1939 – Second World War: Britain became the first nation to motorise its army, and had begun to replace horse cavalry with armoured vehicles in 1928.

1941 – Second World War: The German Army on the Eastern Front lost 179,000 horses in two months.

1942 – Second World War: The British Army still employed 6500 horses and 10,000 mules. In total, 200,000 animals – also including dogs and pigeons – were put into service by Britain.

1944 – Second World War: 14,000 mules were used by US military in northern Italy, and China used more than 20,000 mules in battles against the Japanese.

1950-1953 – Korean War: Chinese and North Korean forces used mules to transport supplies, including during the 1951 Spring Offensive against South Korea.

1955-1975 – Vietnam War: At least 40,000 animals were killed by unexploded landmines in the 20 years following the war.

1977-1992 – Mozambique Civil War: Giraffe and elephant herds in the Gorongosa National Park shrank by 90 per cent.

1980-1988 – Iran-Iraq War: Populations of wild goat, wolves, otters, pelicans, striped hyenas, river dolphins and other wildlife were wiped out or reached the point of extinction.

1983-2005 – Sudanese Civil War: South Sudan’s elephant population fell from 100,000 to 5000.

1990s – Afghan War: Over 75,000 animals were lost due to mines – more than half of the total livestock population.

1990-1991 – Gulf War: More than 80 per cent of livestock in Kuwait died, including 790,000 sheep, 12,500 cows and 2500 horses.

1997 – First Congo War: Armed militias reached Garamba National Park and, in three months, half of the park’s elephants, two-thirds of buffaloes and three-quarters of hippos disappeared.

1998-1999 – Kosovo War: Kosovo’s cattle population reduced from 400,000 to 200,000.

2001-present – War in Afghanistan: Military dogs supported British Special Forces operations. The UK Ministry of Defence said the role of the 11,000 dogs working across the armed forces ‘cannot be underestimated.’

2003-2011 – Iraq War: Insurgents commonly attached explosives to horses and donkey carts to target crowded areas and convoys.

2014 – Gaza Conflict: 20 per cent of the animal population estimated to be lost – including 15,000 missing sheep and goats.

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