David Edgerton
The Shock of the Old

Twentieth-century horsepower was not a left-over from a pre-mechanical era; the gigantic horse-drawn metropolis of 1900 was new. In Britain, the most industrialised nation in the world in 1900, the use of horses for transportation peaked not in the early nineteenth century but in the early years of the twentieth. How could it be that horse transport expanded at the same time as trains pulled by 'iron horses'? The answer is that economic development and urbanisation went hand in hand with more horse-buses, horse-trams and horse-carriages. In addition, while train and ship carried goods over long distances, over shorter distances horse-drawn vehicles became ever more necessary. Thus visitors to London's Camden Market, on the site of a huge railway yard and interchange with the canal system, will note that many of the old buildings were stables. These were not there to house animals used for riding in nearby Regent's Park, but for draught animals. In 1924 the largest and most progressive British railway company, the London, Midland and Scottish, had as many horses as it had locomotives—10,000. By contrast it had just over 1,000 motor vehicles. In 1930 the London and North Eastern Railway railway had 7,000 steam locomotives and 5,000 horses, and only about 800 motor vehicles. There is no doubt though, that by 1914 in the great rich cities of the world, horse transport was giving way to the motor-powered buses, lorries and cars, and electric-powered trams.

In agriculture, the horsepower peak was to come later. For example, in Finland the horse population peaked in the 1950s because they were used in logging. The United States provides the most graphic example. Agricultural horsepower peaked in 1915 with more than 21 million on American farms, up from 11 million in 1880, a level to which it had returned by the mid-1930s. The US case is particularly interesting because at the beginning of the twentieth century it had highly mechanised agriculture, but this was horse-powered agriculture. We are apt to underestimate the implications of relying on horsepower in the countryside. At the peak of agricultural horse use in Britain and the USA, about one-third of agricultural land was devoted to the horses' upkeep: they were large consumers of grass, hay and grain. Mechanised agriculture helped the US to become the richest large nation in the world, and one that by the 1910s was by far and away the largest producer of motor vehicles.

In one area of twentieth-century life, the use of horses for transport was particularly remarkable. The Great War and the Second World War are seen as industrial wars, as feats of engineering and science and organisation. And so they were. Because of this both involved huge numbers of horses, which, like men, were conscripted. Every belligerent depended on them, as well as on mules and other beasts of burden. Before the Great War, the small British army had 25,000 horses but by the middle of 1917 the great new mass British armies had 591,000 horses, 213,000 mules, 47,000 camels and 11,000 oxen. In late 1917 there were 368,000 British horses and 82,000 British mules on the Western Front alone, hugely outnumbering British motor vehicles. This was not a question of a deluded commitment to cavalry. Only one-third of the British horses on the Western Front were for riding (and only some of these were in cavalry units)—the great majority transported the vast quantities of materiel required in modern war, particularly from the railheads to the front. The use of the animals was not an exceptional emergency measure to make use of Britain's existing horses. Horses were desperately needed, and Britain bought 429,000 of them and 275,000 mules from the US, and imported vast quantities of fodder too. Britain's ability to exploit world horse markets was crucial to its military power. In any case the British were not unique. The vast American armies pouring into Europe in 1918 equipped each of their very large infantry divisions with 2,000 draught horses, another 2,000 riding horses and no fewer than 2,700 mules: one horse or mule for every four men.

An even starker example of the continuing importance of the horse is provided by the Second World War. The German army, so often portrayed as centred on armoured formations, had even more horses in the Second World War than the British army had in the Great War. The horse was the 'basic means of transport in the Germany Army.' German rearmament in the 1930s involved mass purchase of horses such that by 1939 the army had 590,000, leaving 3 million others in the rest of the country. Each infantry division needed around 5,000 horses to move itself. For the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, 625,000 horses were assembled. As the war progressed the German horse army got ever larger as the Wehrmacht pillaged the agricultural horses of the nations it conquered. At the beginning of 1945 it had 1.2 million horses; the total loss of horses in the war is estimated at 1.5 million. Could it be that the Great War and the Second World War saw more horses in battle than any previous war? Could it be that the draughthorse-to-soldier ratio also increased, despite the use of other forms of transport? Certainly the Wehrmacht embarked on its march to Moscow with many times more horses than Napoleon's Grand Armee. Indeed, it took longer to get there.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.