Horses of the Great War - The Story in Art, John Fairley

Horses of the Great War - The Story in Art, John Fairley

Every army in the First World War relied on horsepower to a remarkable extent. The British alone used around one million horses during the war, of which over half died. Unsurprisingly these horses attracted the attention of many war artists, who produced a wide range of paintings, covering different types of horses and artistic styles.

Artistically we get a wide range of styles, including formal oils, watercolour and various modernist styles (this differs from a recent book on postcards of the Great War, where modernist styles were almost completely absent). Most of the pictures are from British artists and represent  British topics, although there are one or two exceptions in the main text, and a short chapter devoted to the American army.

The paintings portray a wide range of topics, including the classic cavalry charge, scenes behind the lines, towing supplies or artillery, a rather sentimental picture showing a soldier saying good bye to a dying horse (produced for an animal charity), and enough sporting scenes to help explain why some of the infantry resented the cavalry so much.

The book follows a simple but effective format. Each double page spread has one page of text and one page with a full colour reproduction of an artwork. The text mixes historical background with a description of the painting, so there is a context for each picture. The author is perhaps a little prone to exaggerating the role of the mounted cavalry in the defensive battles of 1918, but is otherwise accurate (the cavalry did play a major role in these battles, but serving as mounted infantry, using its horses to reach the threatened point on the battlefield then dismounting to fight). In other theatres the cavalry retained much of its importance, but on every front the horse was far more important as a transport animal, providing most of the motive power available for just about every purpose. 

One of the most impressive things to emerge from the text is the shear scale of the effort required to produce horses for the army. Vast numbers of horses came from the United States, where an equally large organisation was set up to handle them. The Home Nations provided 400,000 horse, and in 1918 the army had over 800,000 horses, mules, donkeys and similar on its books!

This is a splendidly illustrated book, given added value by the accompanying text, which helps place the pictures both in their immediate context, and in the wide context of the war and the huge demand for horse power.

1 - Recruiting the War Horses
2 - Cavalry
3 - Guns and Artillery
4 - The Somme and the Western Front
5 - The Desert
6 - Salonika and Gallipoli
7 - Around the World
8 - The Americans
9 - The Home Front
10 - The End of the War
11 - Resurrection

Author: John Fairley
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 160
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2015

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