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NZ's First World War horses

Page 6 – Sinai and Palestine

Several thousand of the New Zealand forces’ horses remained in the Middle East when the New Zealand Division sailed to France in April 1916. They were assigned to the New Zealand Mounted Rifles (NZMR) Brigade, which had been separated from the rest of the New Zealand forces and transferred into a new Anzac Mounted Division along with Australian Light Horse brigades and Royal Horse Artillery batteries. Most of these horses had probably come from New Zealand, from where a further 455 horses assigned to the regiment arrived in Egypt in October 1916.

The horses assigned to the NZMR Brigade were predominantly riding horses. Some draught and pack horses were assigned to each regiment – for transporting supplies and equipment, and also with the Field Ambulance.

Horses proved useful to New Zealand forces throughout the Sinai campaign of 1916 and the Palestine campaign of 1917-18. Riding, draught and packhorses were used to varying degrees for troop work and transport purposes.

Riding horses were used throughout both campaigns by mounted troops of the NZMR Brigade (and to some extent by attached units). These horses gave the troops the mobility they needed. They allowed them to patrol and carry out reconnaissance over a much larger area than they could have on foot. They also gave them flexibility of movement during battle.

Draught and pack horses were used to a lesser extent for transport and light artillery purposes by units attached to the NZMR Brigade. The Royal Horse Artillery, predominantly the Somerset Territorial Battery, filled the heavy artillery role. Packhorses were used by the machine-gun sections attached to each regiment to carry guns and equipment (in July 1916 these sections were combined into a Machine Gun Squadron).

Draught horses were used sparingly for transport purposes during the Sinai campaign. The wheeled vehicles they were to draw generally proved too heavy for the desert sand and were left behind. Supplies and equipment were instead carried across the desert on the backs of camels. Some draught horses were used to carry wounded men by the Field Ambulance, which had exchanged its four-wheeled wagons for two-wheeled sand carts. Camels also played a role in transporting the wounded.

Palestine’s harder terrain proved more suitable for wheeled vehicles, which were brought up to supplement the transport camels. The Field Ambulance’s transport was again reorganised, as it would continue to be throughout the campaign. At times wheeled vehicles had to take different routes to the mounted men, with whom they met up at the next rest stop.

Conditions on the ground in both campaigns were often physically trying for the horses. Camels, draught and packhorses carried heavy loads. Even riding horses bore more than 100 kg – rider, weapons, ammunition, forage, and water.

These loads often had to be carried for long distances across difficult terrain, while the horses put up with bites from flies and other insects, shortages of food and water, and challenging weather – extremes of heat and cold, burning sand, blinding dust and driving rain. Many horses lost condition. Some died, while those too sick or weak to continue might be evacuated to hospital. In 1917, just before the Battle of Ayun Kara, some horses went without water for 72 hours.

Horses also died, or were evacuated to hospital, after being hit by enemy artillery fire or aerial attack.

The men did their best to preserve the condition of their horses. Many of the remounts sent in their place came from other countries and were not considered to be of as high quality as New Zealand horses. As A.B. Moore recalls in The mounted riflemen in Sinai and Palestine, horses thought to be of Argentinean origin didn’t last long with the New Zealanders:

These animals, although apparently in the pink of condition when they arrived, were soft, of poor heart, and could not stand up to the hardships as the original New Zealand-bred horses had done, with the result that they were evacuated from the active list as fast as they appeared.

When they required medical care, the New Zealand Veterinary Corps tried to retain as many New Zealand horses as it could. Once sent to the British base hospital in Egypt, they would be lost among the mass of other horses. 

Thanks to the New Zealand horses’ quality and endurance, and the efforts of the men and the New Zealand Veterinary Corps, a number of ‘original’ horses were still with their units at the end of the war. Terry Kinloch, in Devils on horses, notes that the NZMR Brigade had almost 2500 horses at the end of the war. Many of these may have been New Zealand horses. There were still more than 1000 ‘original’ mounts with the NZMR Brigade at the beginning of the Palestine campaign, and New Zealand horses were also serving in attached units in early 1917.