Churchill's Mission to Rescue the War Horses; He Made Officials Bring Tens of Thousands Home

Article excerpt

Byline: Chris Hastings

WINSTON CHURCHILL intervened to secure the safe return of tens of thousands of war horses stranded in Europe after the First World War.

The heroism of the million-strong army of horses that served alongside British troops - often in hellish conditions - is celebrated in Steven Spielberg's blockbuster War Horse, which opens in the UK this month.

And now, historic documents uncovered by The Mail on Sunday reveal many of them were to owe their lives to Churchill's compassion.

British military chiefs were heavily dependent on horsepower to carry men, supplies and artillery, and spent more than [pounds sterling]36million during the war to buy up 1.1million horses from Britain, Canada and the United States.

War Office documents found in the National Archives at Kew show that tens of thousands of the animals were at risk of disease, hunger and even death at the hands of French and Belgian butchers because bungling officials couldn't get them home when hostilities drew to a close.

Churchill, then aged 44 and Secretary of State for War, reacted with fury when he was informed of their treatment and took a personal interest in their plight after the 1914-1918 war.

He secured their speedy return after firing off angry memos to officials within his own department and at the Ministry of Shipping, who had promised to return 12,000 horses a week but were struggling to get a quarter of that number back.

In a strongly worded missive dated February 13, 1919, Churchill told Lieutenant-General Sir Travers Clarke, then Quartermaster-General: 'If it is so serious, what have you been doing about it? The letter of the Commander-In-Chief discloses a complete failure on the part of the Ministry of Shipping to meet its obligations and scores of thousands of horses will be left in France under extremely disadvantageous conditions. …