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British Horses Used on the Boer Affair

The Boer Revolution is one of the most important military conflicts in the history of the British Imperial Army. Its tactics and the British’s Army deployment have been studied for more than a century now, but what is seldom rememberd is the role the horse played on that expedition to South Africa. When the British Army began to mobilize its troops for deployment in northwest South Africa, the horses, as it had done in every prior military campaign, proved to be the cornerstone of the transportation effort. Horses from all over the Empire, India, Australia, and Burma, filled the Army's ranks. Even Argentina supplied the British with fresh animals on the eve of battle. The British Army that went to war against the Boers used three distinct types of horses: the cavalry horse, the artillery carrying horse and the mounted infantry animal. As each mission variant in its profile, so did the horses' selected for it.

The cavalry horse was perhaps the hardest working animal in the Army ranks. They carried a full complemented saddle weighing at around 98 pounds. Add this to the mounted officer's weight, which was estimated at nearly 125 pounds while fully armed; and the animal was expected to move a mount of just under 225 pounds- a tall order for any horse. Coupled with the weight, the cavalry horse was expected to move at a clip of just under nine miles per hour. All of this while performing various military operations. The cavalry horses were the most used animal of this war. They were usually required to ride for up to ten hours a day and their ride was not easy. They climbed some of the roughest mountain passes in Africa; they rode the steepest hills on the continent, all of these at temperatures above 95 degrees. A tall order indeed. And this did not cover their bloody encounters with the Boer's deadly machine guns which cut the vast majority of them, and their valiant riders, to pieces.

The mounted infantry horse was expected to play a different role than that of its cavalry cousin. By definition, mounted infantry men get off of their horse to engage the enemy in close quarter combat, while the cavalry men usually fought on it. With the cavalry horse, speed and endurance were the two main attributes handlers looked for in a horse. But on the infantry units, endurance was the only trait trainers looked for in a perspective animal. Most British infantry horses were animals that just missed the cavalry distinction. The British Army had a phrase that better described their view on what the infantry horse should look like and it goes like this: "if it has four legs, a body and a head; it would carry an infantryman on its back". The infantry ranks were filled with horses from all walks of life. Small framed, large legged animals, unfitted and sometimes discarded horses were brought in an attempt to fill the Army’s quota. Even little ponies from the colony of Burma were employed by the infantry before the war was over. During the whole Boer affair, the mounted horses suffered more deaths, proportionally and numerically, than either the cavalry or gun towing horses. The vast majority of their losses were not attributed to enemy fire but to their own handlers. The way the British mistreated their mounted infantry horses would leave a black mark on the British Army.

The other horses used by the British were the gun towing animals. Called Field Battery Horses, these animals were the sole property of the Royal Horse Artillery Corps. Because of the nature of their haul and mission profile, the artillery towed horse main trait, in fact, the only trait that the Army looked for in this type of animal was sheer strength. And because of this need, this type of animal was very difficult to find on that far reaches of the Empire. Most of the Army’s towing horses division came from the British Iles itself. Because of this, the officers and men in general, took great pride in their animal. Overall, the Army used more than two thousand of these sturdy horses for artillery movement. They did not suffer as much maltreatment as did their infantry counterparts, but the massive weight of their pull, guns were becoming bigger and bigger, had the same effect on them.

By the end of the British expedition in South Africa, the Army’s horse rank was almost empty. Most of the horses employed against the Boers, in particular the cavalry and artillery towing ones, which came from Great Britain itself, were lost. The only rank that was able to sustain the intense attrition process was the mounted infantry. And the only reason they could maintain a somewhat operational capability level was because their ranks were filled with animals the others services discarded to begin with. The fact that it took the British Army almost ten full years to replenish their depleted horses’ ranks is a testament to both the massive British abuse of their animals and the ability of the once called primitive Boers to inflict heavy damage. No firm data exists regarding the number of horses employed by the U.K. forces in the Boer War, but it is safe to say that well over seven thousand of these majestic animals were lost. The ones that did survive the affair were left to die there, on the battlefields of South Africa. A sad remainder of the cruelty of war.


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