Monday, 2 April 2007

Chapter 13: Drivers and Horses

A very powerful painting of horses and drivers by Septimus Power. (ART19842)
"First Australian Artillery going into the 3rd Battle of Ypres (1919). This work shows a team of six horses, three mounted and three led, struggling through thick mud pulling a heavy 18 pounder gun on the limber. Six other soldiers on foot are helping to haul the gun, all moving away from the viewer. Septimus Power has captured the dash, the urgency, the immediacy of guns being moved to give fire support on the battlefield. You can almost hear the sound of mud sucking on the hooves, the gasping of the horses, the slap of leather, and creaking of axles, and the shouts of men. And you can imagine the sounds of the great battle beyond and sense the danger towards which the gun team is headed. "

Power did some wonderful drawings and paintings, many of artillery, horses and drivers. Search the AWM Collection using the term "Septimus Power" to see his other works.

From Laffin:

"Man and Horse: Sharing The Load"

To save manpower, the AIF used mules at night to take water tins as close as possible to the front line. Ten mules controlled by two minders could carry as much water as 60 men. During the bitter 1916-17 winter at Flers, wounded men were evacuated in improvised sleds drawn across the mud by one or two horses. In emergencies, ambulance horses were commandeered for direct military purposes. In November 1916 at Flers, the front-line units planning an attack needed 600 scaling ladders so troops could climb out of their deep, muddy trenches to go over the top. Orders were issued that ambulance horses were to be used to transport the heavy ladders across the sea of mud on sleds normally used for the wounded. The heavy labour wore out the horses, but most ladders were delivered in time for the attack.

Endlessly toiling along tracks, the thousands of packhorses and mules made them almost impassable. At places in the Ypres Salient during the 1917 offensive, horses pulling ammunition wagons sometimes became trapped in treacherous areas of mud and sank almost out of sight. The drivers struggled to keep the animals' heads up until help arrived.

The country-bred Australian drivers were regarded as the finest on the Front. In winter conditions, Australian drivers were dirty and their wagons battered, but their horses were groomed and in good condition. When strings of wagons were shelled, all soldiers in the vicinity dived for cover, but no shell-fire could separate an Australian wagon driver from his beloved horses. Horses at the halt trembled when they heard the whine of an incoming shell and instinctively buried their muzzles in their soldier-minders chests.

Many animals were wounded, particularly by shell-fire, and among the busiest units were the Mobile Veterinary Sections. The 2nd Division's MVS was shelled in the back area in the summer of 1916 and reported that its horse patients suffered acute shell-shock. On August 21, enemy planes dropped seven bombs on the wagon lines of the 7th field Artillery Battery in Becourt Wood, near Albert. Apart from the soldier casualties, 15 horses were killed and 29 wounded.

About 80,000 horses and mules in British service died on the Western Front. Australian fighting men, always sentimental about their horses, swore with anger when they came across animals gasping piteously for breath after a German gas attack. And when parted from their horses at the end of the war, tough Digger drivers often wept. The bonds they had forged with their four-legged mates were as strong as those they had made with their fellow soldiers.

AWM photograph of Australian mule transport in winter mud, The Somme, December 1916. (E00036)

From CEW Bean Vol IV The AIF In France 1917:

September 1917, Polygon Wood.

“The circuit roads had to be made whatever the cost. The forward one lay in ground always heavily shelled, frequently with mustard gas, and the shelling increased when the German airmen, as they quickly did, observed the new roads. In the early stages the pioneers constantly suffered from small burns due to the mustard oil, which, hanging about the shell holes, clung to their clothing. These minor hurts were soon avoided by changing clothes on return to camp near Ypres, but the drain of more serious casualties continued steadily. Particularly trying was the duty of the transport drivers, Strings of waggons had to carry the planks slowly along the narrow, mainly one-way, roads. When, as often happened, the track was shelled, and a length of it destroyed by direct hits, while the breach was being repaired the drivers had to sit, each on his high perch, controlling his horses, while the shells struck home on or around the crowded traffic. Other than Australian transport was used for this work; the superiority of the Australian drivers for it was most evident. They belonged to the finest class their nation produced, unassuming country-bred men. They waited steadily until the break was repaired or some shattered waggon or horses dragged from the road, and then continued their vital work. No shell-fire could drive them from their horses. The unostentatious efficiency and self-discipline of these steadfast men was as fine as any achievement of Australians in the war.”

AWM photo of Artillery horse and driver on the road between Montauban and Mametz. Dec 1916 (E00002)
Painting by Septimus Power - Horse Lines on the Somme (ART03335)

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