Remembrance Day: The soldier and horse who journeyed through the First World War together
- Credit: Archant
The tales of the soldiers who fought and died in the trenches of the First World War are well known.
But the contribution of a very different group of comrades is not always considered.
Horses were among the millions of animals who experienced the horrors of the conflict, transporting supplies and weapons and being used as cavalry.
Of the one million horses and mules sent abroad by Britain, just 60,000 returned home.
The animals’ plight is known all too well by Martin Laurie, whose grandfather Vernon went off to war with his own mare.
Their story served as the inspiration for his book Cupid’s War.
Martin, 57, said: “As a child, my grandfather talked to me about Cupid and the other horses.
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“After he died, I found his letters and I thought his story was worth retelling.”
The family lived in Stifford, Essex, but often went to Romford Market to sell cattle.
Vernon’s father Ranald, who served in what was then known as the 3rd Essex Battery (Territorial Force), bought him Cupid as a present for his 15th birthday.
But little did he know they would head off to war in three years’ time.
When the conflict broke out, Ranald was tasked with buying horses for the battery, which was in the 54th (East Anglian) Division, and he decided to “sign up” four of the family’s own animals, including Cupid.
Vernon enlisted himself and the trio were eventually sent to the Western Front, in November 1915.
The family remained there until early 1916 and ended up in Egypt.
Martin, who grew up in Brentwood, said: “The horses went through the desert which is extraordinary; there was not a lot of water to keep themselves going and it was a very difficult situation.
“They were worked very hard, pulling these huge loads off the sand.”
Many of the horses were also struck down with glanders, a deadly and highly contagious disease.
Vernon, Ranald and Cupid were involved in the three battles of Gaza in 1917 and were in Beirut, Lebanon, before the war ended.
But despite emerging from the conflict unscathed, the bond between man and horse was broken.
Martin said: “Cupid got very badly injured by stray mules and had to be put down.
“They had been together for so long. It is very sad.”
Vernon died in 1981.
Martin believes the horses’ contribution should be remembered.
“The soldiers were completely reliant on the horses; without them they couldn’t have gone anywhere, crossed the deserts.
“The horses were so much a part of their lives.”
Cupid’s War, published by Mereo Books, is available online and at retailers.