Making horses for war: the Army Remount Service

Sometime ago, while browsing Discovery, our catalogue, I came across the file WO 161/117: drawings, photographs and plans of Remount Depots. What a delight!

I didn’t know much about the Remount Department and – apart from seeing the play ‘War Horse’ – the horses that were used extensively during the First World War. This document, an album of atmospheric photographs, made me want to explore more.

Between 1914 and 1918 Britain’s war effort was dependent on its horses. At the start of the war, horse power was still a key method of moving the army and its supplies to destinations across Europe. The volume of military stores and rations required at the front was much greater than it had been in earlier conflicts. Even though the importance of the cavalry was in decline and motorised transport was becoming more reliable, trench warfare meant that provisions had to be brought in from a distance and very often over ground that wasn’t suitable for other means of transport. There was an urgent demand for large numbers of draught- and packhorses, mules and other animals.

The Army Remount Department was the body responsible for the purchase and training of horses and mules between 1887 and 1942. Prior to the First World War the British army possessed around 25,000 horses; by the middle of 1917 this had increased to around 600,000, plus camels and oxen.

In 1911, as the prospect of a war in Europe war loomed, the Remount Department and the police conducted an inventory of horses, to enable them to select around 130,000 animals which could be called up in an emergency (HO 45/10659/212708). Under the Army Act of 1912 (WO 32/8947) it was possible to requisition horses when needed, ‘on payment of a fair price and subject to the owner’s right of appeal to the County Court’.

The Remount Statement of 1913-1914 gave the army’s detailed requirements regarding the numbers of horses required on mobilisation, for each command and for the individual units mobilising under its orders.

Table showing the requirements of each command in horses

Remount statement 1913-1914 (catalogue reference: WO 33/628)

Page of the report written by Lord Selbourne's committee; a subheading reads 'What steps should be taken in England and Wales to secure an adequate supply of horses suitable for military purpose'

Report by Lord Selbourne’s committee (catalogue reference: MAF 52/3)

A committee appointed by Lord Selbourne was set up to consider and advise on what steps should be taken in England and Wales to secure an adequate supply of horses suitable for military purposes.

The committee’s report of 1915 found the situation to be extremely poor. It made many criticisms, including a statement that sires were inferior:

‘these horses are of so poor a stamp as to be of no military value. No one who goes carefully through the horses in either a country or urban district can fail to be appalled at the number of animals which by faulty conformation or obvious unsoundness, are quite unsuited for hard work.’

The board recommended a number of changes to ensure the future quality of horse breeding, including:

  • the registration of stallions and an award of premiums to thoroughbreds
  • a brood mare scheme
  • the purchase of stallions by the Board
  • the encouragement of breeding
  • a census of horses
  • the appointment of an Advisory Council and County Committees to carry out this work, together with adequate finance

The National Stud grew from these changes instigated by the Selbourne Committee.

Over the course of the war, some 470,000 horses were purchased in the UK, with the large haulage companies and the railways (RAIL 1130/67) being among the major suppliers. Around 422,000 horses and 275,000 mules came from North America, 6000 horses and 1,500 mules from South America and 3,700 mules from Spain and Portugal.

Between 1914 and 1920, the Remount Service had spend £67.5 million on the purchase, training and delivery to the front of these animals (WO 33/628).

Setting up camps

In order to handle the large numbers of animals, camps were set up across the country, with four main camps serving the most important ports. The first of these was on the outskirts of Romsey (WO 161/117 folio 24), serving Southampton; as did Swaythling, situated on the north side of the port. Ormskirk served Liverpool and Shirehampton served Avonmouth (WO 161/117).

The Romsey, Ormskirk and Shirehampton camps were used for horses and mules arriving from overseas; Swaythling was a collection centre for animals being shipped abroad. Several other smaller depots were established throughout the country for the receipt of locally-bred horses.

The capacity and complement of each depot increased dramatically from their establishment. At Swaythling, for example, in April 1919, around 3,500 horses and mules were stabled and cared for by 757 men.

Black and white photograph of a field bakery: there are neat piles of bread, and men crouching in front of the ovens

Field bakery (catalogue reference: WO 116/117)

The camp at Swaythling collected animals from smaller camps all over England and shipped them to France; it was also one of the centres where horses were given a final overhaul before being sent to war. They also received returning animals at the end of the war. Alongside this, Swaythling trained thousands of men to be sent to look after the horses overseas.

Romsey camp received its first horses – just 20 – in March 1915. By the end of the war it had processed about 120,000, around 10% of the animals acquired by the Remount Service. Its primary function was to train horses and mules for war service, and by 1916 there were over 2,000 men stationed at this camp. They were divided into squadrons, with each containing ‘rough riders’ to break in young horses, a farrier sergeant, shoeing smiths and saddlers.

As the war progressed it became increasingly difficult to find suitable men for these trades. Many men previously considered to be too old or unfit were medically upgraded as ‘fit to fight at the front’. Members of the Woman’s Land Army were bought in to work in their place. The recruitment and organisation of women who could be enrolled for work, and particularly for situations like this, became of national importance.

There were often more than 4,000 horses and mules in the care of the squadrons at Romsey. Sometimes as many as 830 horses might be received in a day. The general length of stay of each horse varied, but was usually between one and four months, either for training or recuperation. Romsey had a large isolation hospital, where sick horses could receive the best veterinary care.

Black and white image open ground; there are stables on either side, with a row of horses between them

Romsey Remount Depot, Isolation Hospital (catalogue reference: WO 116/117)

The demands of the First World War far exceeded the Remount Department’s expectations. Frequent calls were made for economies in the use of horses. In November 1915 the Prime Minister H. H. Asquith reminded the army of the need for a stringent control over expenditure, saying that he thought that horses had ‘played an unexpectedly small part in this War’.

Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, ordered the appointment in 1916 of a Committee to report on ways of reducing the number of horses. Sir W Birbeck, Director of Remounts, explained:

‘the horses remain under observation in the camps, followed by training, a process which weeded out all unfit, unsuitable and infectious animals. Without this and if animals were sent directly to France, very large and expensive arrangements would have to be introduced as well as infection being introduced into the war zone.’ (CAB 24/2/50)

The Army Council commented that it was already using bicycles wherever possible and expressed its strong opposition to civil servants meddling in military matters.

The initial phase of mobilisation passed without any serious hitches. Before the war, a list of retired officers willing to help with horse mobilisation programme had been drawn up.

Once these animals had joined their units, they needed to be fed and watered, and when they fell sick or were wounded they required – and often received – a high standard of veterinary care. Horses were as indispensable to the war effort as machine guns, railways and heavy artillery: the ability to mobilise these vast numbers of animals was crucial. This work was provided by the Horse Transport Company, the largest element of The Army Service Corps (ASC); we hold their war diaries in WO 95/5460.

The contribution of animals, especially to the transport services and artillery, was of central importance. Horses pulled the divisional supply trains nearer to the front lines; they pulled makeshift sledges carrying the wounded, over mud men could barely walk over; they took ammunition to the guns, food to the field kitchens and carried mail to the soldiers. Its fair to say that without them, the British army would have suffered immeasurably.

15 comments

  1. Magda Chrysaphiades says:

    Very interesting article . My Grandfather who was from Cyprus, joined the Army in WW1.
    He was a Muleeteer , and from what we know was with the Macedonian group.
    I have a photograph of him , but always thought it was from when he worked for the forestry commission.
    I discovered through the First World War 1 , centinery , when I contacted somebody to confirm the uniform .

  2. David Stockton says:

    My Great Grandfather, Frederick Stockton, enlisted and joined the ‘Remounts’. He was served his Call-up Notice by a Sgt Raymond of The Staffordshire Regiment, he was sent to attest at Wolverhampton. He enlisted on the 6th April 1915 into the ASC (Army Service Corps). He gave his ‘trade or calling’ as “Horse Driver.”
    For some odd reason, the papers show his age as 37 years 341 days when in fact he was 47. He joined his unit at the Ormskirk Remount Depot. His Army Number was 063945. Records show him as being posted to 3 Base Remount Depot in Dieppe, travelling by sea on the SS Viper, from Southampton and arriving at Le Havre. He was on Home Service from April 1915 to August 1916, and in France from August 1916 to February 1919. On discharge in March 1919, he was entitled to British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
    The full article and a photo I wrote can be found at https://wolverhamptonswar.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/frederick-stockton/

    1. Sally Hoult says:

      Thank you for your comment, I enjoyed reading your article about your great grandfather, Frederick Stockton, I really liked his photograph.

    2. Peter John says:

      David,

      The reason for the age of your GGF being 10 years younger may be because the upper age limit for joining the Remounts was (in War Office newspaper adverts in April 1915) 40 years.

      I have similarly found a potential ancestor who enlisted on 21 April 1915 at the age of 20 but gave his age as 25 years – which was (then) the lower age limit.

      He also was sent initially to Ormskirk, from Shrewsbury.

      Peter

  3. Meta Osborne says:

    Have you any information about the Curragh Camp in Ireland being used as a remount depot?

    1. Nell Brown (Admin) says:

      Hello!

      Thanks for your comment. We’re unable to help with research requests on the blog, but if you go to our contact us page: http://nationalarchives.gov.uk/contact/ you’ll see how to get in touch with our record experts via phone, email or live chat.

      Good luck with your research.

      Nell

    2. David Lyons says:

      some mention of the Curragh and the role it played in this book:

      ‘Theirs Not To Reason Why’: Horsing the British Army 1875-1925

  4. Claire Marcus says:

    Thank you for this article, which adds some context to my grandfather’s WWI service. He was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, but we have at least one photo of him on horseback (in France, I think).

  5. David Lyons says:

    No. 1 Remount Farm was based at Lusk just outside Dublin, and a number of local features still carry the “Remount” name.

    Unfortunately, the facility was attacked and burned during the War of Independence.

    1. Sally Hoult says:

      We do have some records on the camp based at Lusk which may interest you, however we are unable to give research information out on our blog. If you would like to go to our contact us page: http://nationalarchives.gov.uk/contact/ you’ll see how to get in touch with our record experts via phone, email or live chat.

  6. Sally Woodage says:

    Very interesting piece. Particularly the fact that the poor quality and condition of the horses just prior to the war, resulted in the development of the National Stud to improve quality. Much as the ‘poor quality’ of the human conscripts resulted in changes to improve the health of the working (and fighting) man.

  7. Colin Moretti says:

    Two years ago a statue to the men and horses of the remount service was unveiled in the Romsey War Memorial park; you can read more about it here:
    https://www.ltvas.org.uk/romsey-war-horse–remount

    The Romsey local history society has published a book on the subject of the Romsey camp and the web page (above) also gives references to other published works about the remount service.

  8. Mark Smith says:

    A very interesting piece, thank you. Is there any direct documentary evidence to indicate that the poor quality and insufficient numbers of available horses or mules led to the development and deployment of the trench light railway systems in the later years of WW1? I had learned from previous histories that the railways were developed primarily because conventional wheeled motor vehicles (requisitioned lorries and buses) could not cope with the poor surface conditions on the battlefields and sank into the mud. But it seems the replacement of horse power might also have been a factor, and of course a 20 horsepower or 40 horsepower light railway locomotive could (as the “hp” rating suggests…) pull a lot more than a single animal. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this.

  9. […] at 9 Merry Boys opening, Moseley Village, in 1911. Samuel was a gas fitting makers striker. The Army Remount Service were responsible for the purchase and training of horses for the army. I have not been able to […]

  10. Jonathan says:

    Hi,

    Does anyone know of any decent resources on he army remount service in ww2?

    I’m sure there are a lot of personal stories behind the horses that were purchased for the 1st cavalry division, but I haven’t been able to find much yet.

    Cheers,

    Jonathan

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