Although the British forces in the Peninsular purchased most of their pack and draught animals locally, they still had to ship cavalry and artillery horses from Britain. Getting horses onto transports was no easy task, as William Tomkinson saw when his charger Bob was swung aboard a ship at Falmouth:
‘[He] kicked himself out and was near being lost. He stood on the deck of the vessel for some time while they were putting a fresh pair of slings on him, and nearly killed the second mate of the vessel by kicking him overboard. The man fell the whole height of the vessel, there being no water near the quay at which we embarked. He was left behind sick at Falmouth.’
The landing of the British Army at Mondego Bay, 1808
Throughout the 19th century horses were shipped around the world, often paying the ultimate price. On 26 April 1845 the transport vessel Hyderabad, bound for India from Sydney with 118 horses for the British Army, struck a rock 100 miles off Cape York. All of the horses were drowned.
Likewise, when the troopship HMS Birkenhead sank off the South African Cape on 25 February 1852, nine cavalry horses were lost in the shark-infested waters.
Landing of the Royal Horse Artillery on the Bosphorus, May 1854
Travelling by sea was as dangerous for horses as it was for humans. During the Boer War (1899-1902), thousands of horses were lost at sea. In 1900 nearly 4% of the 25,845 horses sent from North America to South Africa died en route, mainly from disease, shipwreck and injury caused by rolling vessels.
Horses of the Army Service Corps being fed on board ship, c1899
During World War One (1914-18), the threat of enemy naval attack was added to dangers like ship-borne disease and shipwreck. In 1917 over 94,000 horses were sent from North America to Europe and 3,300 were lost at sea. Over 2,700 of these horses died when submarines and other warships sank their vessels.
On 28 June 1915 the horse transport SS Armenian was torpedoed by U-24 off the Cornish coast. Although the surviving crew were allowed to abandon ship, the vessel’s cargo of 1,400 horses and mules were not so lucky and all perished.
Landing horses in Salonika, c1916
Once on the ships, the animals were placed in their stalls and then given regular checks during the voyage. Despite the best efforts of the men who looked after them, many horses suffered from shipping fever, a form of pneumonia, and from various pulmonary complaints.
Horses of the 5th Hampshire Howitzer Battery en route to Basra, c1915
Having been confined in a small space, horses usually required several weeks to recuperate on landing. It was the job of the Remount Department and the Army Veterinary Corps to get them into shape and ready for active service.
Unloading horses at Boulogne, c1915