The latest podcast from the History Network on “Horses in the Wehrmacht” notes that 750,000 horses were employed by the Germans during Operation Barbarossa in 1941, or one horse for every four troops. Don’t be fooled by the effectiveness of a good hoofed animal: the horse was the soldier’s Humvee for thousands of years.
It took generations for militarized man to breed a good war-horse. Some ancient resources describe the ancient soldier riding on the rump of his mount, for the horse’s back was not strong enough to bear a man and his weapons. Later, horse and soldier became better acquainted for different tactics. One early army employed a rider-archer horse team: the archer was trained to run alongside the galloping horse to reach a firing position. The invention of the chariot allowed forces to attach an attack platform to the back of a horse and terrorize enemy ranks. The Mongol hordes likely gained a reputation for their numbers thanks to the remounts brought by each soldier—a sea of moving horses must have generated clouds of dust that would frighten any distant foe. Cavalry was mobility in its purest form, giving an army the means to scout ahead, circumvent the enemy, and threaten its flanks. Alexander’s famed maneuvers at Gaugamela showed that horse and rider could manipulate entire formations.
The horse was worth its weight in feed and water. They could carry more than the toughest foot soldier and handle many types of terrain. No army could function without horse-drawn artillery, baggage, and equipment. Infantry was always followed by columns of horses and mules. To seize a helpless army’s baggage train was to cut off the tail of the dragon—and a good opportunity for looting. Yet the powerful horse was also susceptible to drought conditions, bad weather, and horrid terrain. Anything that could kill a man could easily kill a horse. One photograph in a U.S. Army history book shows a soldier and horse fitted with gas masks. When horses fell, the army lost its ability to move at speed.
The horse was also a status symbol. To own one and groom one was the first step to enter the officers corps. It represented money and culture and power. Every commander, from King Henry to Harry Smith, has become a symbol of leadership from high atop a sturdy mount.
There is something sad about exposing such a powerful animal to the ordeals of man-made conflict. Horses made their own sacrifices without much say in the matter. Nevertheless, they were the primary means of waging war for ages past. We’ve since replaced horses with machines and robots, but without a doubt, military history owes its foundation to the horse.
Photo: From U.S. Center of Military History gallery, “Buffalo Soldiers On The Eve Of War”