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The Real War Horses of America

Posted on 01/05/2012

Michael Morpurgo’s fictional story “War Horse” has gone from a beloved children's book to successful stage production to bestselling Hollywood movie directed by Steven Spielberg. But who were the real war horses of America?

Between 1914 and 1918, the United States sent almost one million horses to the European forces, particularly the British. When America entered the war, another 182,000 horses were taken overseas by the American Expeditionary Forces. Only 200 horses returned to the U.S., and 60,000 were killed outright.1 As the nation’s equine population and trained cavalry mounts became seriously depleted, many wild horses, including American Mustangs, were utilized. Supplying war horses was considered a patriotic act, and Americans were proud of their contribution. In 1916 the Idaho Daily Statesmen declared about the Mustang: “The little western pony may not be up to cavalry standards, but he is a good little Ford, and will get you there and be up and about the next morning, and if cactus is the only food, he will take it and smile, leaving the regulation Packard waiting for the oats to catch up.”2 The quality of Allied war horses was seen as a key differentiator in the war. As the Duluth News Tribune asserted in 1918: “When the enemy finally begins its big retreat, it is the Allies’ horses that will keep the Germans on the run.”3 Horses were mainly used for transport, not only of solders but also for hauling artillery, ambulances and supply wagons. They were better suited than vehicles to traveling through deep mud and over rough terrain. They were also helpful in raising soldier morale. The bond between soldier and horse was well documented in the newspapers at the time.

In a feature on how farm horses were trained to become war horses, a Kansas City Star reporter wrote in 1917: “A private will tell how some particular horse will follow him about the lot. ‘Somebody’s pet,’ he explains. ‘I’ve taken a fancy to the darn little cuss.”4  All the men feel that way about horses, explained the Star's reporter: “A young lieutenant has a pony with a coffee pot brand on him. He calls him ‘Coffee’ and talk to him as if he were a human.”5 News reports of horses’ heroism, loyalty to their soldiers, and grief when they were lost were common. Typical headlines read: “Charger stood beside Dead Master between Firing Lines for Two Days” and “Faithful Horse Returns to Master.” The Kansas City Star published the photograph above in 1916 with the headine “Faithful Horse Awaits Master in Vain.”6 Not surprisingly, individual horses also became heroes during World War I. One example was Kidron, the war horse ridden by General John J. (“Black Jack”) Pershing, leader of the American Expeditionary Forces. A striking dark bay horse with two white hind socks, Kidron captured the imagination of the American people because he was often used by Pershing in victory parades and seen in ceremonial photos. He became a symbol of all that was noble about the war, despite huge losses of equine and human alike. The news of Kidron’s release from quarantine and his safe entry into the United States in 1920 made headlines across the country. Unfortunately, most horses did not make it back. They were killed by artillery fire, suffered from skin disorders and disease, and were injured by poison gas. An article published in the Aberdeen Daily News in 1915 estimated that twenty days was the war horse’s average existence at the front.7 Moved to action by the plight of war horses, Americans appealed to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker to help equines overseas. On May 22, 1916, Baker asked the American Humane Association to establish a welfare service for horses and mules in the U.S. Army. This organization became the American Red Star Relief, which still exists today as part of the American Humane Association’s emergency services. After the war, relief societies sprung up across the U.S. to help bring the horses home and to provide care for them after the war. On October 15, 1921, a plaque commissioned by the American Red Star was unveiled in the War Department in memory of the equine suffering during World War I. It reads:

This tablet commemorates the service and sufferings of the 243,135 mules and horses employed by the American Expeditionary Forces overseas during the Great World War, which terminated November 11, 1918, and which resulted in the death of 68,682 of those animals. What they suffered is beyond words to describe. A fitting tribute to their important services has been given by the commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, General John J. Pershing, who has written: “The army horses and mules proved of inestimable value in prosecuting the war to a successful conclusion. They were found in all the theaters of preparation and operation doing their silent but faithful work without the faculty for hoping for any reward or compensation.”8

For more remarkable stories in America’s Historical Newspapers, search “war horse,” “war horse relief,” “American Red Star” or “American Red Star Animal Relief.”


International Museum of the Horse (The Horse in Transition: The Horse in World War I, 1914-1918). Retrieved 1-3-2012).

2 “American War Horse,” Idaho Daily Statesman, June 21, 1916, p. 4).

3 “War Horse Gets Full Education,” Duluth News Tribune, (Aug. 30, 1918, p. 2).

4 “When the Plough Horse Changes to a War Horse,” Kansas City Star (Nov. 25, 1917, p. 1).

5 Ibid

6 “Faithful Horse Awaits Master in Vain,” Kansas City Star, (Dec. 28, 1916, p. 4).

7 “War Horses’ Brief Life,” Aberdeen Daily News (Feb. 4, 1915, p. 3).

Spielberg’s War Horse: Animal Heroes of the Great War (Part 1).   Accessed  Jan 3, 2012.

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