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Horses joined us in battle

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I don't know a lot about my grandfather's experiences as a sergeant with the horse brigade in the First World War. He didn't talk about it with us.

I do know that while he never fought in the trenches, his brigade was charged with supplying the front lines.

A lifetime later, he gave me a book titled The Horseman's Friend and Veterinary Adviser. It was a special edition, with an added chapter on "The Breeding in Canada of Horses for Army Use" (circa 1900) written by J. G. Rutherford, Canada's chief veterinary officer.

"The natural conditions in Canada, are it need hardly be said, most favourable for the production of the animals wanted," Rutherford writes. Suffice to say Canadian farms sent more than kids off to war. This country reportedly supplied more than 130,000, or about 10 per cent, of the horses used on the Western Front. "The presence of horses often increased morale among the soldiers at the front, but the animals contributed to disease and poor sanitation in camps, caused by their manure and carcasses," the online encyclopedia Wikipedia says.

"The value of horses, and the increasing difficulty of replacing them, was such that by 1917 some troops were told that the loss of a horse was of greater tactical concern than the loss of a human soldier."

In those times, there was a strong relationshipbetween humans and the animals with which they worked. A poignant account of that relationship is found in this First World War excerpt cited in an article by G.R. Duxbury in the Military History Journal. It comes from a letter written by a gun driver, who was later killed in action, talking about his horses.

"I had driven them for three years. I tell you I could talk to them just as I am talking to you. There was not a word I said that they did not understand...

"Early in the retreat from Mons, a big shell crashed right into the midst of the section. The driver in front of me was blown to bits, but I was thrown clear unhurt. My gun was wrecked, I was ordered to take the place of a casualty in the other.

"As I mounted the fresh horse to continue the retreat, I saw my two poor horses with the blood coming from them struggling and kicking on the ground to free themselves. I could not go back to them. I tell you it hurt me. Suddenly, a French chasseur dashed up to them, cut the traces and set them at liberty...

"Those horses followed me for four days. We stopped for hardly five minutes, and I could not get back to them. There was no work for them, but they kept their places in the line like trained soldiers... "

Nov. 11 is about remembering the sacrifices of those who served in combat, and acknowledging their contribution to the freedoms and choices we have today. But perhaps it also serves as a reminder our changing and ever more complex relationship with animals -- as companions, service animals, and food sources --reflects our own humanity.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2013 B7

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