Dorothy Brooke and the Old War Horses

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.

Brooke 1001

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:

Brooke 2002

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.

‘Sharing Rations’ – Portraying soldiers and their horses

Throughout the Great War, The War Illustrated provided its readership with a written and visual account of the War’s events as they unfolded week-by-week. The magazine relied predominantly, and increasingly, upon photographs. However, its most lasting legacy were its illustrations. These were produced by a coterie of war illustrators. Stanley Wood was one of the most prolific of these artists; with a distinctive style. I would argue that he was particularly good at conveying the drama through the horses in his images. His horses are always very expressive.

Christmas Box Cropped

The front page of the 1916 Christmas edition was no exception. I have recently noticed this image appearing more regularly, and I felt it might be interesting to say something about it, and to explore why (in a purely practical sense) it may have endured. Of course the first point is what it shows, and when it was published. Here is what I said about this in Soldiers and their Horses:

“It depicted a trooper smiling kindly, even a little indulgently, as he shared his precious ‘Christmas Box’ with his horse. This scene may not have had the glamour of a cavalry engagement, but it did offer consolation at a time of year when separation from loved ones was felt all the more keenly.”

The second point of note is its replication. Sharing Rations initially appeared as a front page image at a prominent time of the year. It was then reproduced as a postcard, and as a poster. It was possible to buy these images, and to keep them. To purchase the image as a print (often by ordering it through the publication in which it appeared) that could then be framed and displayed at home. An inexpensive form of home decoration! This poster format is how Sharing Rations is most often seen today.

Postcards, in the days before the telephone, were a popular way of keeping in touch. Not only sent when on holiday, they were used rather like a text or email today. A quick line to just say “hello”, to make arrangements, or to pass on news. Postcards were inexpensive. They were also decorative – and above all small! Items that were easy to re-purpose as a bookmark, put into an album, slot into a diary, or just store somewhere safe. Perhaps this is another very practical reason for the survival of some of these more popular images of the soldier-horse relationship?

Want to find out more about how the soldier-horse relationship was portrayed? Find out more in Soldiers and their Horses: Sense, Sentimentality and the Soldier-Horse Relationship in The Great War, Routledge, 2020.

Fig 4.4 Sharing Rations - The War Illustrated - Rebellion Publishing (1)












‘The Field Service Pocket Book’ – Veterinary Services in 1914

Last week, I talked about recruits and how they were trained to work with horses. So, following on from that I’m sharing a couple of pages from my copy of The Field Service Pocket Book from 1914. I mentioned that soldiers were given some information about some of the causes of lameness and illness in horses, and what to do when they encountered them. You can (hopefully) see examples of these here.

Although the Field Service Pocket Book was by no means intended for use only by horsed soldiers, the extent to which horse-related matters are included emphasises the extent to which the British Army of 1914-1918 relied on its horses.

Section 33 (at the end of the two pages) is a stark reminder of the conditions soldiers and their horses encountered, and the demands war made of the soldier in the soldier-horse relationship.


FSPB Vets 1001FSPB Vets 1002

Training Recruits in The Great War – A New Piece for ‘The Horse Life’

Chums War Ill 2.3.18

Here’s an excerpt from a new piece I’ve recently written for The Horse Life. I really enjoyed writing it, and I hope you will enjoy it reading it too.

“For many recruits, horses were a terrifying prospect. In daily life, horses were gradually being replaced by machines and motors, and it could no longer be assumed that recruits would know anything at all about horses. The only option was to ensure they were swiftly trained. For new recruits, their education began with ‘Stables’ and the daily routines that would become central to their daily lives as horsed soldiers. They were taught the rudiments of horse care: grooming; mucking out; harness cleaning; issuing water, hay and feeds; harnessing and tacking up; and in handling their horses and vehicles safely and efficiently. They were taught about the vehicles and equipment they would be using, and how to properly load a pack animal. They were taught to ride. At every stage, the emphasis was on ensuring their horses were properly maintained, and little sympathy was wasted on the ‘duffer or malingerer’.”

To find out more, please find the full article by following the link:

Soldiers and their Horses

Find out about recruiting, training, and much, much more in Soldiers and their Horses! Now available for download:

Winifred Holtby’s ‘South Riding’ – and Soldiers – and Horses

I found a fascinating article the other day on Heritage Calling about Winifred Holtby. It set me thinking, and remembering. There was that bit I wrote after reading South Riding. I’d almost forgotten about the horses! If you’ve never read it, and you fancy something to keep you out of trouble in the current circumstances, give it a go. I was interested in Carne particularly, because of how he comes to embody the old world that must be swept away to make space for the new. Here is something I wrote at the time. I think the quote from South Riding is both beautiful, and tragic. Especially when viewed alongside the soldier-horse relationship’s similar fate.

In post-war Britain, but for a few exceptions, the soldier’s horse had become an irrelevance. Those who remained its champions were, like Carne and his fellow veterans,  increasingly dismissed as a reactionary and misguided minority.[1] Winifred Holtby’s novel South Riding captures the complexity of this period between the wars. Here progress sweeps away the ‘old world’, and with it horsemen like Carne, but we are left questioning whether the changes wrought are necessarily for the better:

She could not see the ghosts marching through their minds as they laughed and listened. … That time we got that lift in a mule-wagon, along the Rouen Road, and the driver half-boiled and the mules took fright and we ran right into a staff car and the mule put his head in at the window and ole Turnip Face thought he was having D.T.s … All their dreams for the future, all their memories of the past, swarmed around them, wounding them, mocking them, as the comedian replaced his gloves, whistling pensively, and strolled again off the stage. It was their memories that they applauded.

[1] ‘Everyone knows Colonel Blimp. … Blimp gave the order for the charge of the Light Brigade … Blimp it was, too, who wrote to the papers in 1934 to insist that the cavalry go on wearing spurs after they were mechanized…, Seymour-Ure C., in Bryant M. ed., The Complete Colonel Blimp, Bellew, London, 1991, p.13.

[2] Holtby W., South Riding, An English Landscape, Virago, London, first ed. 1939, 2000, p.106-107.

Horse Silhouette


Find out more about Winifred Holtby here:

Many have heard of the Bronte’s, but are you familiar with Winifred Holtby, one of Yorkshire’s lesser-known literary daughters?Read more

via The Story of Winifred Holtby and the Yorkshire Wolds — Heritage CallingS Continue reading “Winifred Holtby’s ‘South Riding’ – and Soldiers – and Horses”

The Big Day – ‘Soldiers and their Horses’ is finally here!

41doGfGb2jL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_After weeks of proof checking. Having learned the mysterious art of indexing. Not to mention, writing it in the first place! Soldiers and their Horses is here. Tomorrow is the BIG day. Please spread the word!

Flynn, J. (2020). Soldiers and Their Horses. New York: Routledge,


Hold your horses and check your sources

This is a fantastic blog post warning of the perils that lie in wait for the unwary historian. Indeed, we could argue that The Great War was being mythologised even as it was happening. This is just such an example, and beautifully illustrates how events become history, and how history transforms over time. Especially in memory and in the public consciousness.

Lucy Betteridge-Dyson

The image above is frequently circulated on social media, usually accompanied with a caption such as ‘1916 – soldiers pay tribute to the horses who died in the Great War’ which, whilst a lovely idea, is a bit of duff history I’m afraid. I’m fed up of seeing it do the rounds, so thought I’d explain a little about the real story behind the photo…

The photo is actually part of a series of shots taken by Michigan photographer, Almeron Newman. Newman was born in Portland in 1875 and began professionally taking photos in 1899. By 1918 he was living in New Mexico, where he registered for the draft for the First World War. Newman had developed a reputation as a specialist in panoramic and forced perspective photography, which suited the fashion at the time for ‘living photography’ – the technique of using people to create scenes and objects. In…

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CFP: Equine Cultures in Transition 2020, Deadline January 31 — Equine History Collective

There is still time to submit an abstract to the Equine Cultures in Transition Conference – Past, Present and Future Challenges (deadline: January 31). This conference will be held June 16–18 at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala and the Swedish Equestrian Centre of Excellence at Strömsholm, Sweden. From the conference website: “Questions […]

via CFP: Equine Cultures in Transition 2020, Deadline January 31 — Equine History Collective

2019 Equine History Conference Recap — Equine History Collective

Above: The group after the tour of the W.K. Kellogg Arabian Horse Center The second Equine History Conference (#EqHist2019) brought together a fantastic group of scholars Nov. 13–15, 2019 at Cal Poly Pomona (see final program). Hosted by the W.K. Kellogg Arabian Horse Library, the event opened with a welcome from Emma Gibson, Interim Dean of […]

via 2019 Equine History Conference Recap — Equine History Collective