First World War echoes on through horse charity’s work as Norfolk campaigner is remembered

First World War cavalry horse

First World War cavalry horse - Credit: Archant

When the world stopped on Monday to remember the 16 million who did not survive the First World War, the sacrifices of another branch of our armed forces was barely mentioned.

World Horse Welfare field officer Nick White with Penny, a military horse looked after by the charit

World Horse Welfare field officer Nick White with Penny, a military horse looked after by the charity. - Credit: Archant

Serving with bravery and stoicism, 484,000 British horses died during the conflict, chopped down by gunfire or tangled in barbed wire on the battlegrounds of the Western Front.

The war marked a turning point for cavalry units. The onset of modern machine gun and artillery fire, and the development of tanks, put the role of horses into question.

There were also changes in peacetime, with the growing mechanisation of society meaning horses were becoming obsolete, and increasingly sent to the slaughterhouse.

The animals were often poorly treated during their final days, with whipping to the abattoir not uncommon.

Ada Cole

Ada Cole - Credit: Archant

But a campaigner from Norfolk was moved to intervene in their mistreatment, having worked for their rights since before the war.

Born just outside Thetford, Ada Cole founded the International League Against the Export of Horses for Butchery after seeing work-worn animals suffering savage treatment.

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Now known as World Horse Welfare, based in Snetterton, the charity has been championing horses' rights since 1927.

Her work began before the war, with campaigning that altered an 1914 Act of Parliament to prohibit the export of horses without a vet's permission.

But when she returned to Britain in 1919 - having spent three months in a German prison camp after being captured while serving as a nurse - the law had not been enforced.

Enraged by continued mistreatment of horses, she founded the charity in the hope of changing future equine legislation and protecting horses.

Today, the charity works to rescue mistreated animals and bring them back to health.

And the military ties are still strong, with many former serving horses in the charity's care.

Roly Owers, chief executive, said the influence of the First World War remained.

'Horses continue to play a role in army services but are also relied upon in so many different ways today – the legacy of our war horse heroes still lives on in many of them.

'World Horse Welfare is proud that over the years some of our rescued, rehabilitated and rehomed horses have in the past, or still are serving in the forces.'

One of the more famous horses which the charity cared for is Copenhagen. The gelding was injured during the notorious 1982 IRA attack in Hyde Park on the men and horses of the Queen's Life Guard.

Another of the charity's rescue cases, Digger, an 18hh Clydesdale, practiced as a drum horse in the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment where he took part in preparations for Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding.

Today, formal battle-ready horse cavalry units have almost disappeared, although horses are still seen in use by organised armed fighters in developing countries.

Many nations still maintain small units of mounted riders for patrol and reconnaissance, and military horse units are also used for ceremonial and educational purposes.

'It suffices to say, that horses should be valued just as much today as they ever were,' said Mr Owers.

'Our noble equine steeds will continue to support humans not just here in the UK as the driving force behind many modern-day activities, but in the developing world too where they are relied upon by many families and whole communities for survival.

'World Horse Welfare remembers WW1 with a heavy heart, as we commemorate all those, both human and equine, who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their countries.'