Did You Know? - Horses and Horseflesh Losses in the Boer War

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Did You Know? - Horses and Horseflesh Losses in the Boer War

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Horses and Horseflesh Losses in the Boer War

Thu, 9th May, 2013

Horses and Horseflesh Losses in the Boer War

43,000 Australian horses were sent to the Boer War 1899-1902 and none were returned to Australia.

Animals were an important part of the logistics for the Boer War, drawn from across the British Empire as well as Europe and the Americas. 360,000 horses out of a total of 519,000, had to be shipped into South Africa. 106,000 mules and donkeys out of a total of 151,000 were also brought into the region for the war.

The number of horses killed in the war was at the time unprecedented in modern warfare. For example, in the Relief of Kimberley, French's cavalry rode 500 horses to their deaths in a single day. The wastage was particularly heavy among British forces for several reasons: overloading of horses with unnecessary equipment and saddlery, failure to rest and acclimatise horses after long sea voyages and, later in the war, poor management by inexperienced mounted troops and distant control by unsympathetic staff. The average life expectancy of a British horse, from the time of its arrival in Port Elizabeth, was around six weeks.

Horses were on occasion slaughtered for their meat. During the Siege of Kimberley and Siege of Ladysmith, horses were consumed as food once the regular sources of meat were depleted. The besieged British forces in Ladysmith also produced chevril, a Bovril-like paste, by boiling down the horse meat to a jelly paste and serving it like beef tea.

One of the most interesting studies in the Boer War was to see how the various breeds of horses stood the work they had to do. The army were mounted on animals drawn from all ends of the earth; great round-hipped English chargers, light wiry Australians, mongrel Argentines, wonderful little Burmese ponies and last, but not least, the Cape horses. A military writer has committed himself to the opinion that the Cape horse is useless for military purposes, nevertheless it was on Cape horses that the Boers did all their work, and the rapidity of their movements showed that they were not mounted on useless horses.

Army horses may be divided into three classes - cavalry horses, mounted infantry horses, and gun horses. The cavalry horse is the hardest sort to get. The cavalry saddle with full equipment weighs about 45 kilos, so that a fairly heavy man, say 75 kilos in weight, rides his horse at the cruel weight of 120 kg. With this weight on their backs, the cavalry horses are supposed to be able to move from place to place at the rate of fifteen kilometres an hour; they are expected to have breeding and pluck enough to be able at the end of a long day to charge a retreating enemy and cut him to pieces. They must be prepared to do scouting work, riding round hills all day, varied by hurried retreats at full gallop under fire.

Husbandry was not a strong point during the Boer War, horses endured extreme hardship and died in unprecedented numbers. 60% of the horses died in combat or as the result of mis-treatment as opposed to 3% of human combatants. The distances were great, and Boer forces did not just move along railway lines. The Cape Ponies of the Boers were used to the rough grass of the Karoo; the horses from overseas were not. Cavalrymen trained in lush climates were used to their horses gaining much of their sustenance form available local forage, that was not the case in South Africa. Australian soldiers, good horsemen, were used to being able to rest horses as on the farm at home, there were always fresh ones. In South Africa there was no such luxury. The well trained British cavalrymen, and the New South Welshmen, trained at Aldershot, knew the requirements to rest and look after their mounts, the movement required and a lack of understanding by Army staff, however, meant that few of the husbandry requirements were able to be met. Thus we have the example of the 500 horses ridden to death in the relief of Kimberley, with an overall 60% attrition rate.

A longer version of this article originally appeared on the Australian Boer War Memorial site. The Regimental Museum is grateful to the National Boer War Memorial Association Inc (Australia), to Lt. Col. (Retd.) Murray E. Alexander, RFD, ED, the author of the article, and to Mr. John Howells, webmaster at the NBWMA, for their kind permission to publish this extract; and to Mr. David Mercer, Hon. Secretary of the South Australian Mounted Rifles Association, who brought the article to our attention.

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