Station: [7] Horses at War

F: Human beings have been waging war for thousands of years. And the horse has been closely involved. After horses were domesticated, more than 5,000 years ago, they became vital companions-at-arms.

M: Mounted warriors were fast and mobile – which gave them an edge over an enemy fighter. Inventions such as the stirrup meant that the rider was steadier in the saddle and improved his fighting technique. In the late Middle Ages – when chivalry was at its height – riders wore heavy armour and fought with long lances. Horses had to be big and strong to be able to carry the armoured knights. 

F: Until the 20th century, horses were an essential feature of warfare. In the First World War, around a million and a half horses were deployed. In the Second World War, it was almost twice as many! Those four-legged soldiers had to meet various requirements: 

M: They had to be obedient, fast and agile. They had to master all gaits, have good jumping ability and be able to pull heavy loads. Additionally, they were expected to be "docile in traffic and safe around the troops". The animals were trained at special riding and driving schools in each military district. Riders and horses demonstrated their skills in special competitions – which is where the modern horse shows originated. 

F: Of course, war left its mark on the horses. The First World War saw veterinary care professionally organised for the first time. After all, the animals were important "war material". Following considerable losses, horse hospitals, for example, were greatly expanded. By the end of the war, some 1.3 million horses were being cared for in around 500 hospitals. 

M: The animals suffered from exhaustion, wounds or gas poisoning. Injuries were treated and shrapnel was removed on mobile operating tables. The vets’ equipment was in no way inferior to that used by the medical doctors.  

F: The First World War also brought something else in its wake: the use of chemical warfare agents – weapons that were not just cruel, but above all, barely controllable. Winds carried the toxic gases in all directions – affecting not just the enemy, but also those who had released them. Gases irritated the mucous membranes and the throat, and caused chemical burns to the skin. Humans and animals had to wear special protective clothing and gas masks, and vets developed appropriate methods of treatment. 

M: For example, there was a treatment device called the Animal Air Protection Box 39, which contained various substances by means of which horses could be detoxified and burns treated. Fortunately, chemical weapons were no longer in use during the Second World War. 



© Archäologisches Museum der Westf. Wilhelms-Universität Münster

© Museumslandschaft Hessen-Kassel

© Westfälisches Pferdemuseum Münster

© Claus Richter: Tiere im chemische Krieg, 1939