Graham Leslie McCallum

The tree of happiness flowers and fruits most abundantly for the creative man

The Horse in the Anglo-Boer War

In researching Fort Amiel – one of the things that I became very aware of was the appalling toll war took on horses. I have an abiding love of all things equine, and the mere reading of some of these war accounts makes my blood run cold. To date – I have not been able to see the film ‘War Horse’ – for I know the portrayal of their service and suffering will leave me profoundly disturbed. That such wonderful creatures should have been used in warfare has always bothered my sensibilities.

A New Zealand Trooper, Anglo-Boer War

A fine and descriptive photograph of a New Zealand Trooper mounted with full kit on a sturdy hunter-type horse. Note how the horses tail has been bobbed. The practice of cutting the dock or the skirt, was common with farm draught-horses and draught-crosses, which probably explains this horse’s solid conformation and origin.

I write the following for those who are interested in the Anglo-Boer Wars. That they do not in future read an account of a battle and simply brush-over narratives that record facts like… “had his horse shot from underneath him” – but rather, that they pause, reflect and consider the enormous sufferings and the sacrifices imposed on the horses.
I do not want to sing a dirge on the suffering of horses in this horrid conflict, bar to write of two accounts. The first is an account of the Battle of Ingogo on the farm Schuinshoogte near the town of Newcastle during the 1st Anglo-Boer War. Here, the Boers targeted the riding and gun horses of the British as the soldiers lay pinned-down on an exposed hillside, strafed by Boer bullets from several sides. The terrified horses galloped one way, then another, across the battle field, shrieking in pain as bullets tore into them. In the mayhem they were trampling the wounded on the ground and those British soldiers sheltering behind rocks and anthills. The British soldiers shot several of these frightened mounts themselves to prevent been trampled, adding to the carnage. This account had a chilling effect on me, for the simple reason that the narrator who was at the battle had taken the time to explain in detail the plight of the horses. They were not the usual side-notes to an account. Perhaps, like me, he was a lover of horses, for he later relates how his fellow soldiers assisted the surviving few horses who were struggling to pull the gun carriages away from the muddy battle ground. The small British force made a desperate retreat in the middle of the night, during a vicious Northern Natal rainstorm, through the flooding Ingogo River and then back to camp.

(below) An old photograph exists of the battle field taken in 1881 not long after the rout. It shows a group of horsemen visiting the scene, and in front of the small stone-walled graveyard lie the desiccated skeletons of  horses lying on the field. Unlike the men, they were never buried and rotted-away on the surface.

Battle scene of Schuinshoogte, Battle of Ingogo, not the horse skeletons in the foreground, 1881
The last account I want to mention is that of the stampede of horses from the Horse Remount Depot located just above Fort Amiel in 1902 during the 2nd Anglo Boer War. About 4000 horses were ‘kraaled’ here. One day several hundred of them managed to escape the depot, then having spooked as horses do, they then stampeded across the veldt, galloped in a frenzy down the hill to the south, sweeping around 150 horses of the Australian Contingents away with them. Those sent to retrieve the horses found them 40 miles away. All the retrievers had to do was to follow a trail of horses with broken legs, necks and other nasty injuries, for in their blind terror, they had injured themselves over the rough terrain.

Such was the demand for horses that thousands were shipped-in from many parts of the world. A case in point were the horses of the Australian Commonwealth Horse, who arrived at Durban with their mounts, all in splendid condition. This was something of a return trip – for Cape Horses had been shipped to Australia in the 1700’s and had formed the foundation of the horse breed known as the Australian Waler.

Just like later generations of men discussed the merits of the American Sherman tank as opposed to that of the German Tiger tank, so too the cavalrymen of the Anglo-Boer War. For in their accounts and letters are numerous references to the quality or lack of quality, suitability or the lack thereof, of the local horses and the ones they came with. One can discern notes of regional pride, and even rivalry, as the large English Chargers were compared to that of the Australian horses. Even the small and hardy Boer horses were compared – for how could these small mounts, no bigger than the average pony escape the charges made by the large ‘hunters’ from England and Ireland.
According to statistics by the British War Department – a staggering 519 000 horses were purchased by the military in the 2nd Anglo-Boer War. 360 000 of these horses were imported from across the British Empire. Countries like Australia and New Zealand, Canada and the British Isles, even as far afield as Argentina. The remainder (159 000) were locally sourced from the Natal Colony and the Cape of Good Hope. I am sure the resident Dutch communities of the Cape (though apparently paying lip-service to the Republican cause) profited handsomely from this trade. Considering that each horse at the time cost between 10 and 20 pounds, on an average of 15 pounds, the locally-sourced horses cost the British taxpayer a remarkable 2 and a half million pounds. The sum total in horses was around the 8 million pound mark, a fortune at the turn of the century.

Of this grand total of 519 000 horses – 300 000 died while serving in the war. The war lasted for 970 days and that computes to 309 horses dying a day. These figures do not take into account all the horses used by the Burghers from the South African Republic and the Orange Free State, who perished in their thousands too, many ridden to exhaustion as the Boers were pursued from one side of the highveldt to the other.

A Transvaal Burgher readies for war, 1899

(above) An elderly Transvaal Burgher poses atop his lightly-built pony, 2nd Anglo-Boer War. Note the deep-seated and relaxed riding posture with the rider’s legs pushed well forwards, commonly seen in photographs of mounted Boers. This seat in contrast to the English riding position with the rider’s legs under the torso. In the image (below) of General Louis Botha’s camp, one can see the Boer riding position once again.

Gen Botha giving orders to move camp, Anglo-Boer War

In addition 106 000 mules and donkeys served; 151 000 were imported.

Donkey Train, Newcastle, ACH, 1902

(above) A photograph of a military wagon pulled by a donkey train, Fort Amiel, Newcastle, 2nd Anglo-Boer War.

A horse’s life expectancy was 6 weeks after having been landed. The reasons were many and varied, most reasons obvious to the modestly intelligent. Should I bother to mention the rough terrain of much of Southern Africa. The geography rumbles over rocky veldt, parched grasslands, precipitous mountains, arid  and thorny deserts and sub-tropical bush and swamp. Besides the horses being expected to carry soldiers across many hundred miles, in all kinds of conditions – blistering heat, freezing winters and thunderous rain storms, the kind one must have visited South Africa to fully appreciate. Rivers and streams had to be forded at dangerous drifts for most of the bridges had been destroyed by retreating Boers. The plight of transport horses and mules was horrid, for the roads (or rather tracks) inland, were in deplorable conditions. A narrative common to travelers to Southern Africa were the roads and passes through the mountains. Torrential rains turned them into quagmires and in the dry season, the choking dust drifts were littered with crippling boulders. The sheer wear and tear on the horses can be imagined, not to mention the injuries to fetlock and hoof.

(below) Disembarking a horse at the Point, Durban Harbour, 1902.

Disembarking Horses at Durban, 1902

Many of the horses arrived at South African ports like Durban, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth having already endured long sea voyages in cramped horse boxes. Most had been raised and fed on nutritious grains, not to mention the rich grazing of the lands from which they came. In the chaos of war – many horses seldom saw a bag of oats, but had to subsist on the rough and non-nutritious veldt grass.  Much of the Karoo and Northern Cape consists of thorn bush with little grass; and supply wagons and trains vainly tried and keep up with fast-moving columns. During General French’s swift advance to relieve the sieges of Kimberley and Mafeking, up to 500 horses perished each day from exhaustion and general neglect.

The Irish Dragoon Guards advancing on Modder River

(above) The Irish Dragoon Guards advancing on the Modder River.

Within a very short time, even those horses accompanying cavalry contingents that had arrived in superb condition, had lost condition, even when transported inland in railed cars. Another factor contributing to the high death rate – was African Horse Sickness. This insect borne viral disease, spread mainly by midges, kills 90% of the horses infected, and took-off tens of thousands of horses. Lastly, adding to all this – bullet and shell fire took off the rest.


Fallen Horse, Anglo-Boer War

In the wake of the advance from Jacobsdal to Kimberley, plight of the horses

(above) A moving and shocking image painted by a war artist, of the dead and dying horses left in the wake of the rapid British advance from Jacobsdal to Paardeberg towards Kimberley. 2nd Anglo-Boer War. Ironically, Paardeberg means horse mountain in South African Dutch.

Soldiers trying to revive a horse down from exhaustion

(above) A photograph of British soldiers trying to revive a horse that has collapsed from exhaustion. 2nd Anglo-Boer War.

A Trooper bringing in a wounded horse, Anglo-Boer War

(above) A drawing of a soldier leading a wounded horse into camp. 2nd Anglo-Boer War.

Military Vet examining sich horses at Bloemfontein

(above) A photograph of Military Veterinarians examining sick horses at Bloemfontein.

Horses of the Orange Free Stat Artillery struck by lightning, Anglo-Boer War

(above) A remarkable photograph recording the horses of the Orange Free State Artillery, killed by lightning, 2nd Anglo-Boer War.

Soldiers returning from watering the horses, near Standerton, Tvl, 2nd Anglo-Boer War

(above) Soldiers returning from watering the horses, near Standerton, Tvl, 2nd Anglo-Boer War.

(below) I came across this touching photograph taken at Fort Amiel Encampment in 1902 by Lieutenant Cory of the Australian Commonwealth Horse. The image shows Trooper Beehag and Cory’s horse ‘Wally’. The image made me think immediately of the Horse Memorial in Port Elizabeth which was erected in 1905, three years after the end of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War. (See Below)

Trooper Beehag and his horse Wally, Kichener's Kop, Fort Amiel, ACH, 1902

On the memorial’s stone plinth is the following inscription… “The greatness of a nation consists not so much in the number of its people or the extent of its territory – as in the extent and justice of its compassion. Erected by public subscription in recognition of the services of the gallant animals which perished in the Anglo-Boer War, 1899 – 1902. This call to justice and compassion is an indictment of our past history and a challenge to the future.

Graham Leslie McCallum

Horse Memorial, PE, SA


The Horse Memorial, Port Elizabeth




One comment on “The Horse in the Anglo-Boer War

  1. Anne
    April 18, 2016

    What an interesting read! It is such a pity that members of the EFF did not take any of this into account when they vandalised the Horse Memorial in Port Elizabeth in 2015.

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