Equine at War

I just finished reading a neat little book by Susan Bulanda, called Soldiers in Fur and Feathers. While that description might seem to leave out horses and donkeys, they are included.

The book discusses animals that worked for and with the Allied forces in World War I. Jimmy was a donkey whose mother was captured from the Germans. His mother was killed when he was just a few weeks old but the soldiers raised him on canned milk (probably cutting back on their own rations). He was a beloved mascot and was taught numerous tricks including putting his forelegs around a soldier’s neck for a kiss! Jimmy also worked lugging ammunition and did survive the war. He was retired postwar to a private home in England. Knowing my own donkeys I am surprised he didn’t cause any problems by braying at the wrong moment!

The United States was responsible for shipping the majority of horses and mules into battle. Those equines were already stressed by a treacherous ocean voyage and then went right into combat. Most of them were put to work pulling transports of various types. A team of all black horses stayed together throughout the war and retired together. Susan recounts many instances of the soldiers in charge of the horses putting their horses before themselves when it came to drinking water, etc.

Mechanization was already moving into warfare but there were some cavalry charges – mostly in the Middle East. The Australians seemed to be quite talented at surprise cavalry charges. An Arabian from India named Ragtime and an Irish bred Thoroughbred named Warrior both featured prominently in stories about horses in the war. Both also seemed to lead charmed lives and were able to retire at the end of the war with their beloved owners.

Many of us have seen the movie War Horse and Susan’s book describes many scenes similar to what is shown there. With all the horrors of war, it is impressive to see the relationships that still developed between soldiers and their horses. The bond held up even in difficult situations with the horses giving their all at the request of the soldiers who cared for them. The trust and working partnerships had to be intense.

There are a few black and white photos of the equine forces. Jimmy the donkey is a truly handsome fellow and Ragtime is a classic flea bitten grey Arab. The black horse team is quite impressive.

Along with the horses and mules, the book covers a number of dogs who aided in the war effort. Most surprising to me were the heroic (honestly!) carrier pigeons. Even badly wounded, many pigeons still carried out their duty and delivered messages that saved many lives. Many animals served and made a big difference – saving the lives of many soldiers.

The book is published by Alpine and available on their website, via Susan’s website and through Amazon and local book stores. I highly recommend it for an inspirational read.

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