TO COMMEMORATE the centenary of the end of the First World War, the John Gray Centre Film Appreciation Club and the Local History Department have organised a programme entitled ‘Cinema of Conflict: War Film Season and History Events’ this month.

This series of events aims to promote discussion and appreciation of war in historical memory and how film becomes a tool upon which war is imagined and executed.

The programme begins with a launch event A Couple of Down and Outs, which is a film screening of GB Samuelson’s 1923 silent film on Saturday at 10.30am in the Star Room of the John Gray Centre in Haddington.

The special guests at this event are representatives from Scotland’s War, who will provide an introduction and answer questions after the screening.

The Scotland’s War Project has its origins in Edinburgh’s War 1914-1919, a University of Edinburgh-funded initiative which ran from 2008 to 2014.

Described as “the original War Horse”, A Couple of Down and Outs is a film that was lost for about 80 years but has now been restored by the British Film Institute (BFI).

The film sought to raise public sympathy for veterans of the First World War struggling in the years of peace, as well as animals who had undergone war service.

During the First World War, the army could not have functioned without horses.

The requisition, transportation and care of these animals were highly important.

Horses were essential for cavalry roles but also needed for moving supplies and ammunition and for moving the wounded to hospital.

In 1887, the Remount Department was created to requisition animals for cavalry regiments.

Horses were bought from breeders, auctions and private families.

When war began in 1914, there were only 25,000 horses at the army’s disposal. By the end of the conflict, more than 460,000 horses and mules had been purchased from across Britain and Ireland.

In the first few weeks of the war, the army obtained horses from the general public.

Those who could not justify that their horses were used for transport and agricultural work had to surrender them.

The Remount Department also bought animals from overseas. About 600,000 horses and mules were shipped from North America.

However, shipping them by sea proved to be dangerous. Thousands of animals were lost, mainly from disease, shipwreck and injury caused by rolling ships.

About 2,700 horses were also killed when submarines and other warships sank their vessels.

And even though these animals were checked regularly during their voyage, many horses suffered from ‘shipping fever’, a form of pneumonia, and from other lung complaints.

The criteria for horses purchased for the army were as follows: a horse had to be over three years old, healthy and the right size for assigned work such as for riding, for hauling guns or for transport.

The requisition of horses from civilians prompted some families to appeal to the War Office to spare their beloved family animals.

So in response to such requests, the War Office decided that no horse under 15 hands high would be recruited (a horse’s height was measured from the top of its shoulders with special sticks).

The care of horses during the war was an important task.

Ensuring that horses were well-groomed even in dirty battlefield conditions meant that the horse was always prepared for battle.

Grooming also helped to maintain horses in better condition for longer.

A horse also needed 10 times more food than the average soldier. However, there was an evident lack of grass for them to eat on the Western Front or in the deserts of the Middle East.

But British horses ate the best of all.

They were fed from a nose bag and this reduced waste and the risk of eating something that was harmful.

This method also stopped horses stealing food from another!

Horses were also expected to march long distances during wartime, sometimes up to 40 miles per day.

This meant that iron horseshoes wore out quickly and usually had to be replaced once a month.

Providing accommodation for the large number of horses on the front was also a difficult task as there were not enough stables.

Therefore, picket spikes were used to tether horses out in the open. But picketed horses were still at risk of sinking in the sticky mud of the Western Front.

During the First World War, 75 per cent of horses perished as a result of disease or exhaustion, despite great care from the Army Veterinary Corps.

Horses suffered greatly from cold temperatures, long marches and poor food.

Equine diseases and mud-borne infections were also widespread, as well as exhaustion and lameness caused by work.

Combat injuries were not as frequent but thousands of horses were still treated for bullet wounds, gas and even shell shock.

Many wounded horses were destroyed as humanely as possible while others were sent, via equine ambulances, to hospitals that were established to treat the sick horses.

When the war ended in 1918, millions of soldiers looked forward to finally returning home.

Their horses and mules, however, faced a far less certain future. Only mounts that were owned by officers were guaranteed to return to Britain.

The fate of the rest of the army’s horses and mules depended on their age and fitness. The healthiest and youngest animals were brought back to Britain.

About 25,000 remained in the British Army, while more than 60,000 were sold to farmers.

Horses and mules in the next class down were auctioned off to farmers on the continent.

The oldest and most worn out horses were sent to the knacker’s yard for meat – a necessary move when severe food shortages hit Europe at the end of the war.

Nevertheless, the role of horses was not forgotten.

The ‘Old Blacks’ – a team of six horses who survived the whole war – were chosen to pull the carriage of the Unknown Soldier to mark the Armistice in 1920.

There are innumerable records of the close and often sentimental comradeship that grew between men and animals at the front.

A Couple of Down and Outs recalls this kinship, but also the widespread indignation at the fate of the equine heroes after the war.

To reserve a place for the event, email, call 01620 820680 or ask at the Haddington Library counter.

Article courtesy of John Gray Centre, Haddington