At the start of the war the army had 25,000 horses and mules with a contingent remount strength of 1,200. Within days of war breaking out the supply had increased to 165,000. It reached its peak in 1917 with 870,000 with a remount strength of 60,000. All acquisition of horses was through compulsory purchase. Just over 468,000 were bought in the UK and between 1914 and 1920 67.5 million pounds was spent on buying and training horses.
Remount officers were drawn from those with experience of horses in civilian life. They were local gentry, masters of fox hounds and others with relevant experience, generally from the agricultural community. Thus Norfolk, being a largely agricultural county, was well-placed both in terms of experience and supply, to play a key part in the supply of horses for the battlefields.
Henry Overman of Weasenham was one such man. The records of Overman, of Cokesford Farm, Tittleshall, give some insight into the massive scale of the operation. Several ledgers record the different aspects of his work (BR 118). One such ledger names Overman as the government purchasing officer and a letter enclosed details the mileage he could claim in the course of his duties. Page after page lists the number of horses purchased and the average price being paid for a horse was £75. By March 1917 437 horses had been purchased at a cost of £31,944. Wages for those working with the horses were paid with monies transferred from the mobilization account. The average wage £1 1s 0d. (BR 118/47 and BR 118/144).
Overman started a new ‘Horse Purchase Book Army and Board of Agriculture’ on 1st April 1917. In the first month alone more horses were purchased and more money spent than in the whole of the previous three years. From April to December 3044 horses were purchased (BR118/46).
Overmans’s government horse account details the receipt and dispatch of government horses, those horses needing to be destroyed and those in foal put out to local farmers. At any one time around 100 – 150 horses were in stock. Many horses went to the Remount Depot at Market Harborough and to the King’s Own Royal Regiment Norfolk Yeomany. (BR 118/140).
A typical entry reads:
May 27 1915. Received of Geo Lee Hindolveston barren mare (Canadian) put out by K.O.R.R. Norfolk Yeomanry, taken over to get fit according to instructions from Major Richardson.
Another of Overman’s accounts, showing the receipt and dispatch of Canadian horses, gives further insight to their fate. The account starts on 26th November 1914.
The left-hand side of the ledger records the receipt of 108 horses from the Remount Depot at Market Harborough. The right-hand side accounts for the 108; 1 killed suffering from Flanders, 95 sent back to Market Harborough, 4 sent to local farmers as they were in foal which left a balance of 8. And so the account continues; page after page detailing the vast number of horses being cared for then sent back to the Remount Depot at Market Harborough. The back of the account book records the costs of keeping the horses. For the 108 above it was £135 for one week. (BR 118/139/1)
The gathering up of horses for training at the remount depots was one thing. Getting them across to France was another. The records of Fellows & Co, shipbuilders in Great Yarmouth, detail the work commissioned by the government for two horse boats. Fellows was contracted to build two horse boats to be delivered to Her Majesty’s Dockyard in Portsmouth. Early correspondence stated the government was not prepared to pay more than £700 per boat but eventually a sum of £825 per boat was agreed. The records detail the work involved, not only in constructing the boats which were named S81 and S82, but in transporting them by road to Portsmouth. (BR 36/256).
Not all horses were sent overseas. A territorial horse record details the number of horses in different territorial groups. The Reepham Troop under Sergeant Walker had 11 horses, 14 men, 1 motor cycle and 2 cooks. A different page in the record lists those men and horses who were sick. One such entry notes there were 63 horses on parade and 5 sick. (MC 561/120)
The scale of the operation would clearly have had an impact at home with so many losing their horses to the war effort. The increased use of mechanization for agricultural work was one consequence and no doubt while some suffered their loss others stood to gain by focusing on horse supply. An interesting example is to be found in a letter written by the artist A J Munnings in 1916.
Munnings, famous for his paintings of horses, was staying at Lamona in Penzance, and was in need of cash. He wrote to Nurse, a Norwich antique dealer, asking him to return some of his drawings if he is unable to buy them from him for £25. Munnings writes of having recently sold three drawings, “but it only helped to pay my horse corn for the last 6 months. …and I must keep on with horses because after this war there’ll be no such thing as having any to paint I’m afraid and beside no money to keep ‘em.” A year later Munnings himself became a Remount Officer. (MC 2719/3/1-2).
The work of Overman in supplying horses was replicated all over the country. At the end of the war many horses, wandering the deserted battlefields, were rounded up and sold to local abattoirs. Animal campaigners in the UK strove to bring their plight to the nation’s attention and tried to save those who were left. A lucky few returned home to rural counties such as Norfolk to end their days.
Complied by Daryl Long, NRO Research Blogger.