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History: Let us remember the horses

From the December 2018 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

Members of the Royal Scots Greys cavalry regiment rest their horses by the side of the road in France.

A year ago, the Vintage Veterinary Committee embarked on a project to bring stories about veterinarians and the contribution they made to the early days of agriculture to life at Calgary’s Heritage Park. Remembering the Great War and the colossal contribution horses made to the war effort during a time in history when ranching had just found a solid footing in agriculture’s contribution to Western Canada’s development spawned many stories. This is one of them.


Jed Duncan arrived in Canada from a crofter background. His father and mother left Scotland, three young boys in tow, to escape the penury of a small land holding and the constant burden of need. Their Canadian homestead: a fertile quarter section, adjacent to what would become the rail line through Nanton, Alta., with access to several sections of foothills-range to the west, flourished.

The western cattle industry came into being at the height of a global cattle boom. In North America, the American Civil War and meat demands of the Union army spurred the beef industry. Establishment of Chicago’s Union Stockyards in 1865 created a rail-based, continental-scale beef trade. Extermination of prairie bison caused an enormous gap in the grassland food chain at precisely the time when demand for meat was increasing in four separate frontier markets. First, the North West Mounted Police, who arrived in Fort Macleod in 1874, required a constant high level of provisioning. Second, a newly dependent population of reserve-bound native plains people demanded the provision of meat for statutory reasons since food provision was written into Treaty 6 covering central Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1876. As supplies of buffalo and pemmican waned, beef on the hoof replaced salt pork. Provisions for an emerging group of coal mining communities in southern Alberta included beef as did the diets of the massive work gangs required to build the CPR and subsequent rail lines.

The Duncan’s herd of Black Angus and Hereford brood cows grew to 200 head supplemented by a band of 20 Percheron brood mares. The Duncan family found a ready market for yearlings and two-year-old horses amid new settlers and the crossbred remount demands of the NWMP at Fort Macleod.

Duncan arrived in Canada knowing the minimalist husbandry practices inherited from the influx of Texas cowboys came with major risks. Although abundant fescue grass and exposed southern slopes from Chinook conditions across the Rocky Mountain foothills provided extended grazing through fall and winter most years, total dependence on these conditions proved foolhardy. Early signs of environmental problems included reduced calving percentages below 50 per cent and periodic climatic calamities due to drought and winter kill.

The Texas system of ranching in Canada’s Prairie West proved unsustainable. The catastrophic winter of 1886-87, followed by another in 1906-07, ended all presumptions that profitable ranching did not require feed supplies through winter. The frigid winter of 1886-87 killed 60 to 90 per cent of the cattle from Alberta south to west Texas. As well, the concept of “free” grass encouraged over-stocking, which damaged the short grass prairie, and created a supply glut (cattle had to be sold as there was nothing left to feed them) and concomitant price crash in 1886 just before the “big die-off.” Early historians wrote, “The Texas system was not merely maladapted to the Great Plains; it was not sustainable in any environment and would have collapsed even in the lushest and mildest of settings.”

By 1910 most of the largest ranches had been broken up as settlement expanded and homesteads occupied the open range, forcing ranchers to buy land to remain in operation. The most spectacular and famous crash involved the Cochrane Ranch, one of the most famous symbols of capital and political intrusion by Eastern Canada into the North West. Cochrane Ranch went out of business in 1904. Some 500,000 acres of the best land in the North West came on the market and were snapped up by the Church of Latter Day Saints for $6.25 per acre. By 1905 the ranching district around Lethbridge was completely fenced within a radius of 25 miles around the town as ranchers surrendered their leases and sold off their herds.

Eventually, ranchers and farmers running medium-sized herds — often as a means of diversifying grain operations — on smaller leases, predominated. The government yielded to the overwhelming demand for open settlement. In 1892, ranchers received four years’ notice that all old leases restricting homestead entry would be cancelled, yet the powerful cattle compact argued that the ranching regions were too dry for cereal agriculture. Cattlemen persuaded Ottawa to protect the cattle industry by setting aside major springs, rivers and creek fronts as public stock-watering reserves. Most choice sites thus became inaccessible to settlement, and the ranchers’ dominance continued. The faltering cattle kingdom was dealt the ultimate blow by nature. The winter of 1906-07, without the accustomed Chinook, killed thousands of cattle on many large-scale ranches and led to the passing of the great cattle companies in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The change brought a new generation of local ranchers, including A.E. Cross of the A7 and George Lane of the Bar U, to prominence. At the same time heavy WWI enlistments and casualties sustained by the British-Canadian population profoundly changed the social character of the ranch country.

The Duncans survived the turmoil over rangeland and their small ranch prospered, but war took its toll.

In 1910, the Ontario government purchased the Ontario Veterinary College from the University of Toronto. Over 3,000 graduates completed the two-year diploma course. Many of the graduates were from the U.S. and did not remain in Canada. Jed Duncan’s son Jed went to veterinary college and returned to Nanton.

Within three months of the outbreak of the First World War, veterinary surgeons were dispatched to Europe as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force — the strawberry blonde boy from Nanton among them. A Remount Service was also created to provide reinforcement horses to the CEF. It hurt Jed to know that some of his beloved Percherons would die on the battlefields in Europe.

Canadian veterinarians served in the CEF as well as the British Army, with about 300 Canadian vets eventually seeing service in locales ranging from Europe to India, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Russia. In 1915, Canadian veterinary students in their final year were permitted to skip final exams in exchange for enlisting in the British Army to help ease the shortage of trained veterinarians. Those who agreed were enlisted in the rank of Second Lieutenant and graduated automatically.

Mobile sections moved horse casualties to evacuation stations for surgery and other treatment. Special hospitals were established to combat mange. After the war, some veterinarians remained in Europe to oversee the disposal of animals. The last officer returned in 1920. The remaining Canadian horses were eventually used for work animals or as food.

Eight million horses and countless mules and donkeys died in the First World War. When war began in 1914 the British army possessed a mere 25,000. The urgent task of sourcing half a million more became the responsibility of the War Office. During the first year of the war the British countryside was virtually emptied of horses, from the heavy draft horses such as the Shire through to light riding ponies. Crucial to agriculture at the time, the impact of having their finest and beloved horses requisitioned by the government desperately hurt farming families.

Horses were transported to shipping ports and hoisted onto ships to cross the channel. On arrival in France they would soon be confronted by the horrors of the front line either as cavalry horses or as beasts of burden. Many of the men, grooms, infantrymen, cavalrymen and others formed close bonds with the horses in their charge, but they could do little to prevent the appallingly high death rate due to shelling, front-line charges and exhaustion.

In 1914 the British Army owned only 80 motor vehicles so the dependence on horses for transporting goods and supplies was significant. Conditions on the Western Front were totally unsuitable for motor vehicles.

Heavy losses outstripped the supply of horses between 1914 and 1917. In the United States, 1,000 horses a day were loaded on to ships bound for Europe. With the horses being so vital to the war effort there were constant threats of naval attacks and even attempts at poisoning horses before embarking on the journey. Many horses were taken from the North American plains, often nothing more than wild mustangs. Horses were also shipped from New Zealand, South Africa, India, Spain and Portugal. In addition, large numbers of mules were purchased in the U.S. Prized for their amazing stamina, mules endured terrible conditions on the front-line far better than horses.

With so many horses crowded onto ships, disease became rampant, especially respiratory disease. Even those that weren’t ill with infectious disease suffered immeasurably and were debilitated when they landed on British soil. Horses aged three to twelve years old were trained as rapidly as possible by soldiers called “roughriders.” When usable, horses were assigned to squadrons and sent to the Western Front.

The majority of the horses escaped the battlefield. In 1918 just over 75,000 were allocated to the cavalry, while nearly 450,000 horses and mules were used to lug supplies. Another 90,000 were charged with carrying guns and heavy artillery, and over 100,000 covered the front lines, carrying food and ammunition to soldiers and bearing the wounded across the trenches to hospitals. In 1918 the British army alone had almost 500,000 horses distributing 34,000 tons of meat and 45,000 tons of bread each month. Since the animals themselves also needed feed and water, they distributed some 16,000 tons of forage.

The RSPCA and the Royal Army Veterinary Corps did all they could to treat injured horses and avoid unnecessary suffering. Their vulnerability to artillery and machine gun fire meant many horses died. Losses were appallingly high.

Rations for a horse amounted to 20 pounds of grain a day, about 25 per cent less than what a horse would normally be fed. Finding enough food for the horses and mules presented a constant challenge. The horses were always hungry and often seen chewing on wagon wheels. With grain in short supply, horses and mules survived on sawdust cake.

Through pure coincidence, Jed recognized the — D — brand on the hip of a Percheron mare being treated for a foot injury in a front-line veterinary hospital. He knew immediately she came from the Duncan farm at Nanton. He determined the young man who used her in the field to transport ammunition had been killed and he wanted to be with her when she returned to the battlefield. Jed and his mare were both killed by artillery as he handed her to a new recruit — one sad component of Nanton’s contribution to war.

War horse facts

Because military vehicles were relatively new inventions and prone to problems, horses, and mules were more reliable — and cheaper — forms of transport.

Thousands of horses pulled field guns; six to 12 horses were required to pull each gun.

Eight million horses, donkeys and mules died in the First World War, three-quarters of them from the extreme conditions they worked in.

At the start of the war, the British Army had 25,000 horses. Another 115,000 were purchased compulsorily under the Horse Mobilization Scheme.

Over the course of the war, between 500 and 1,000 horses were shipped to Europe every day.

Dummy horses were sometimes used to deceive the enemy into misreading the location of troops.

Many horses were initially used as traditional cavalry horses but their vulnerability to modern machine gun and artillery fire meant their role changed to transporting troops and ammunition.

Veterinarians treated 2.5 million horses; two million recovered and returned to the battlefield.

The British Army Veterinary Corp hospitals in France cared for 725,000 horses and successfully treated three-quarters of them. A typical horse hospital could treat 2,000 animals at any one time.

Well-bred horses were more likely to suffer from shell shock and be affected by the sights and sounds of battle than less-refined compatriots.

Horses on the front line could be taught to lie down and take cover at the sound of artillery fire.

In muddy conditions, it could take up to 12 hours to clean a horse and the harness.

One-quarter of all deaths were due to gunfire and gas; exhaustion and disease claimed the rest.

Horse fodder was the single largest commodity shipped to the front by some countries, including Britain.

Fearing their horses would face terrible and terrifying conditions at war, some owners took the drastic measure of humanely putting their animals down before the army could seize them.

In a single day during the 1916 Battle of Verdun, 7,000 horses from both sides were killed by long-range shelling, including 97 killed by single shots from a French naval gun.

Losses were particularly heavy among Clydesdale horses, which were used to haul guns.

Britain lost over 484,000 horses — one horse for every two men.

Horses were considered so valuable that if a soldier’s horse was killed or died he was required to cut off a hoof and bring it back to his commanding officer to prove that the two had not simply become separated.

Dr. Ron Clarke is a consulting veterinarian living in Alberta.

About the author


Dr. Ron Clarke

Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen ([email protected]) or WCABP ([email protected]).



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