Inspired by interest in a post I placed on Horses and History (Facebook group) last week, I decided to revisit For Love of Horses; Glenda Spooner’s by turns moving and inspiring account of Dorothy Brooke’s work on behalf of the old war horses in Cairo.
In 1930, Geoffrey Brooke was appointed Brigadier commanding the Cavalry Brigade in Egypt. As horse lovers, and keen horse people, the Brooke’s were already aware of what they were likely to find in Cairo – even twelve years after the end of The Great War. At the War’s end, the War Office had been faced with the problem of disposing of the many thousands of Army horses, donkeys and mules that had become surplus to requirements. Here is what I said about this in Soldiers and their Horses:
In Egypt, it was estimated that there were 100 thousand horses and mules to be disposed of; the alternatives being destruction, repatriation, or sale. Destruction, although it had been employed to great effect in France and Belgium, was considered too impractical and costly. Repatriation was ruled out because horses took up shipping that could be used to bring soldiers home. In the War’s Eastern theatres, an opportunity to recoup the investment the Army’s unwanted horses represented, and the promise of a speedy resolution to a ‘sticky problem’, meant it was decided (despite moral objections) that the British Army’s horses and mules be cast ‘by sale or otherwise’. Thus, the horses and mules were disposed of in a manner that, although economic and efficient, was not entirely humane:
Selling was the only course. The instruction was that animals in the Eastern theatres of war were to be disposed of to the best advantage “by sale or otherwise.” At the same time commanding officers were instructed to use a liberal discretion in destroying animals, especially those that were of British origin, which could not be repatriated and for which good homes could not be found on the spot. (The Times, 1918)
Mrs Brooke was later to discover (upon good authority) that the ‘lack of transport’ excuse had not been substantially valid. Rather, she concluded that the easiest solution had been the most acceptable. A few efforts had been made in 1919 to induce the authorities to change their minds, but to no avail.
The fate of the old war horses had always haunted Dorothy Brooke, who herself admitted how she had “hated to remember but could not forget”. On her arrival in Cairo her fears were realised. However, at first she remained undecided. Was the problem one so vast as to be insurmountable? Being new to Cairo, would interference be classed as meddling – and simply make her unpopular? Might it even cause political trouble? In the end, her mind was made up when out riding one morning with her husband and daughter. Her horse shied, and when she looked to see what had startled him, she found ‘a pile of whitened bones – big ones – lying on a pile of rubble’. The size of the horse’s skeleton lead her to conclude that this could only have belonged to an English horse. It was at this point that she began to enlist support in the United Kingdom, and from the S.P.C.A. in Cairo.
So her work began. Mr Strong, her ally at the S.P.C.A., initially estimated there might be two hundred ex-Army horses and mules left alive. Eventually, this turned out to be a figure nearer five thousand. It was perhaps a good thing that the size of the task was not discovered until later. Indeed, Dorothy Brooke herself admitted that she may have been dissuaded from starting had she realised the magnitude of what she had taken on. Her mission was to save as many of these horses from suffering as she could – and her determination to accomplish this task was truly inspiring.
Perhaps most striking was her pragmatism. For many horses, the only option was to euthanize them as soon as possible after purchase. The toll this must have taken on her can only be imagined. The morning after her buying day became her Black Friday. Spooner tells us:
It was her job to look carefully over all the horses and to decide which of the rows of wretched candidates should be the first to go. She tried to pick the worst cases first, leaving those who were still able to appreciate food, comfort and kindness for a few days longer. Week after week, month after month, she did this job. (Spooner G., For Love of Horses)
It was not all so sad. Many horses went on to make remarkable recoveries from their post-war experiences – and to end their days as cherished representatives of the many who had not returned to the United Kingdom. Two ‘lucky inmates’ were photographed one Armistice Day when they had had time to pick up strength and condition:
In 1934, the International Horse Show at Olympia staged a parade of Old War Horses that had seen service in the 1914-1918 War. Mrs Brooke sent home a horse to represent the five thousand rescued by her. And so her work continued until her return to the U.K. on the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Her rescue of that first five thousand horses and mules was to lay the foundations of an institution bringing relief for horses – and help for their owners – which continues to this day.
‘Army Remounts, 750,000 Horses Released, Methods of Dispersal’, The Times, issue 41970, 11th December 1918.
Flynn J., Soldiers and their Horses: Sense, Sentimentality and the Soldier-Horse Relationship in The Great War, Routledge, New York, 2020.
Spooner G. ed., For Love of Horses, The Diary of Mrs Geoffrey Brooke, The Old War Horse Memorial Hospital, London, 1960.