The British war-horse on the Somme

Anthony M. Ludovici

The Nineteenth Century and After 89, 1921, pp. 727–739

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In adversity the definite limitations of the brute mind give the animal a certain superiority over the human being. They render a comprehensive grasp of an alarming situation impossible, they prevent the anticipation of pain or disaster, or the rehearsal in the imagination of the torment these may bring, and thus protect the animal from the distress of apprehension, and from the squandering of nervous energy before the actual blow has fallen.
        Man, on the other hand, can voluntarily divert his attention from the hardship immediately distressing him; he can be cheered by, and also cheer, others; he can look forward to the day of his release, and by means of that very faculty which adds to his woe by enabling him to forestall it in his fancy, he can also dull its edge by representing vividly to his mind the exquisiteness of some future felicity. But, above all, if he is suffering, however cruelly, lie is constantly aware — particularly in war — of a meaning for his anguish, of a higher purpose which it serves, and of the noble duty through which it has been incurred.
        The animal has no such relief. While it is enduring hardship, during the term of its suffering, its distress is unmitigated by any spiritual compensations whatsoever. It may be patient, but it is uncomforted; it may be dignified, but it remains resolutely miserable.
        This fundamental difference between man and beast was never more apparent than during the last great war, and in no unit could it be more closely observed than in the Field Artillery. In the earlier days, even when the hardships were most acute, the men were often seen to maintain very tolerable spirits. On the other hand, the moment the mud deepened and spread, and the ram began to descend with solemn persistence in the open horse-lines, the horses had but one mood, as universal as it was unflinching, and that was acute despondency.
        Huddled together, taciturn and sulky, their bodies all drawn up as if in physical pain, the unfortunate brutes looked and

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behaved as if one degree more of intelligence must inevitably indicate to them an immediate release in suicide; and when, as sometimes happened (though I believe such a thing has never once been known to occur among mules) through the carelessness of the stable picket, a horse was discovered strangled to death by its own head-rope, one was forced to hesitate between a verdict of stupidity, and one of deliberate self-immolation.
        It was doubtless to this mood of sullen dejection that were also to be ascribed the occasional acts of ingratitude and bad temper that blackened the records of our horses at the Front. A driver known to be consistently kind and gentle with his pair of horses, for instance, would suddenly be reported crippled by a kick; or on the very eve of a march one of the team horses would be found too seriously injured by his neighbour's irons to be able to accompany the battery.
        But there were other causes besides the weather and mud contributing towards the low spirits of our animals in France, and the principal of these was insufficiency of food. The immense difficulty, amid all the other adverse circumstances of the war, of keeping our horses in good condition, was largely aggravated by the fact that the fodder we gave them was either insufficient or of inferior quality. They grew thin and debilitated, and spoiled the effect of every parade by their ungainly appearance.
        Now although the driver and gunner of the New Army had as a rule been hurried through their training at a speed which, in view of the complicated duties they had to perform, would have seemed preposterous at any other time, they were not infrequently men who, in private life, had possessed some knowledge of horses, and were familiar with their peculiarities and needs. It was not surprising to discover, therefore, that, in the care of the pair of animals under their immediate charge, a. large number of these recruits displayed an interest and an efficiency entirely out of keeping with the manner in which they discharged their other military duties. And this lively concern, together with the spirit of emulation which naturally arises wherever a group of men pursue the same object, led to an anxiety about the horses' welfare, which at times, from being merely praiseworthy, became decidedly embarrassing.
        In no direction was this anxiety more apparent, however, than precisely over this matter of fodder; and it was here that the O.C. wagon-line had to show both severity and tact. What the animals chiefly lacked throughout the Somme battles was, of course, green fodder. This was difficult to obtain, and it was therefore customary among the brigades in our Division (the 17th) for the horses to be led out, even from the wagon-lines in action,

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along the neighbouring roads and highways, to nibble at the grass on the banks and ditches on either side. But this practice, regular as it was, had the grave disadvantage of exposing the gunners and drivers to a temptation they were hardly equipped to resist. Certainly they approved of letting their horses graze wherever there was any grass in the vicinity of the wagon-line, and it was with conspicuous eagerness that they led them from the exhausted to the fresher tracks; but unfortunately there were frequently fields of clover, lucerne, or rye, on either side of the road. What was easier than for each driver to leave his horses for a moment, tear up as much lucerne or clover as he could reach, and then return and drop his stolen fodder at his horses' feet? Or, if the country favoured such tactics — and an officer, however vigilant, cannot keep his eyes on 170 horses all at once — why not lead the animals themselves on to the crops? — for there's a saying in the artillery that "grazing is better than soiling." 1
        At all events this was frequently done, and to my shame I confess that it once happened on a certain day in the summer of 1916, under my very eyes, on some fields in the neighbourhood of Nielles-lès-Bléquin, where the battery was then resting. Entirely ignorant as I was of what had taken place, the reader may judge of my surprise when, during the evening of that same day, as I was sitting chatting with the O.C. Battery and one or two other officers, there appeared before us a gentleman who, after introducing himself as the Mayor, announced that he wished to lodge a complaint against our battery. He informed us that two fields of clover, adjoining a road along which our horses had been grazing that afternoon, had been so badly torn up that lie had assessed the damage at forty five francs, and demanded the payment of that sum forthwith. Needless to say how complete was my discomfiture — particularly when he proceeded to declare quite positively that the horses belonged to C Battery 79th Brigade, and left us in no doubt as to his power to establish the identity of the delinquent unit if he were called upon to do so. Vexed as I was, however, I confess that I could not help feeling a little bit mystified by the cool urbanity of my commanding officer, who, after courteously and cheerfully acknowledging the battery's obligation to the plaintiff farmer, promised that the matter should receive his immediate attention. Thereupon the Major retired — satisfied, but evidently not quite relieved of his indignation, and I tremulously awaited my reprimand. To my astonishment, however, the Major said nothing; and it was only on the way home that he remarked casually to me that in the morning I should have to call on the farmer whose clover our

        1. Soiling means feeding green food in the stall.

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horses had undoubtedly enjoyed, and pay him his compensation out of battery funds. I was new to the duties of a gunner subaltern, and I did not understand in the least how or why I had escaped so lightly. But on the morrow the mystery was cleared.
        "Vici!" said the Major with the pleasantest of smiles (he always called me "Vici" — pronounced "Veecy"), "when you go to pay that fat old farmer, mind you beat him down. Twenty-five francs will be ample."
        "Yes sir," I replied. Then feeling that he was showing such remarkable kindness and leniency that I ought perhaps to apologise for what had happened, I drew close to him and stammered "I am very sorry indeed, sir, that I allowed the men to do that damage. I cannot, think how it happened without my noticing it. Do you wish me to parade them and tell them off about it?"
        He smiled sadly. "Vici," he said at last, "I'm disappointed in you Evidently the men are keener about the horses than you are Tell them off about it? Certainly not! They want their horses to put on flesh. Don't let them overdo it, of course; but on the other hand, don't let them think you don't like them to be keen. Why, all this time I have been giving you the credit of the clover episode!"
        This kind of keenness is, however, very soon acquired. It characterises almost everybody in this arm of the Service, and is the natural outcome of a lesson that is soon learnt and daily impressed upon all minds-namely, that the battery's efficiency, aye its very safety, is bound up with the welfare and general good fettle of the horses. So thoroughly did I, a civilian before the war ultimately become infected with this enthusiasm, that I was once guilty of a military crime which, had I not been exceptionally lucky, might have brought an abrupt and ignominious end to my career as an officer.
        The reader will realise, without my labouring the point, that, although the need of secrecy in regard to names of places an of commanding officers in France is now at an end, and thereto that my reserve in this matter may seem a little gratuitous, not theatrical, in the present instance, which deals with a serious breach of military discipline — no matter how laudably motivated — it is incumbent upon me to conceal at least the time, the place, and the area in which it was committed, lest the ultimate leniency of a certain Commanding Officer in having overlooked it — a leniency which to some may appear unwarranted — should be traced to that. officer and occasion him any inconvenience.
        I repeat the incident here, not because it has left me so utterly without shame or regret that I wish to publish my crime broad-

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cast as a feat calculated to excite envy; but rather because it offers another interesting example of the Field Artilleryman's single-minded concern about his horses, to the exclusion of all other and sometimes equally pressing considerations.
        At the time it happened I was the officer in charge of the wagon-line, and among my most important duties was that of supplying ammunition to the guns in action. This is not as simple a duty as it might seem; for it imposes both on the men and on the horses exposure to danger and fatigue which frequently leads to serious casualties. It should be borne in mind that in the Field Artillery the guns in action are always so close up to the front-line trenches (the effective range of the 18-pounders is only 2000 to 2500 yards) that the perils faced by the Field Gunner may be considered the same as, if not greater than, those faced by infantry holding the foremost trenches. I say "if not greater," because the infantry, when holding the foremost trenches, enjoy protection which the gunner generally speaking does not enjoy, and which, at all events, men, horses and ammunition wagons, standing delivering shell at the gun position, cannot possibly enjoy.
        It therefore behoves the officer responsible for the supply of ammunition to the guns to select only those roads and that time of day in which he can feel reasonably assured that the minimum amount of risk from enemy fire will he incurred both by his men and by his horses. To fulfil these conditions in war-time is not easy. On the Somme, where we were under fire almost incessantly, it was immensely difficult.
        The day on which my regrettable misdemeanour occurred was a very hot one in late July. We had been out — that is to say, away from the wagon-line — for practically six hours, without being able to water our horses, and, as we marched home, men and steeds looked, and undoubtedly were, done to a turn. We had been fortunate in the sense that we had suffered no casualties; but we were all thoroughly exhausted. Now, just as we were about to enter the last village on our route, and our hearts were gladdened by the thought of the wagon-line on the further side of it, a sentry dashed up to me from a box in the hedge, saluted, and informed me that there was no road that way. I halted the battery, and after expressing my astonishment to him, pointed out that our wagon-line lay only a stone's throw from the village on the other side, and that if we followed the road to which he was barring our access we should be home in another ten minutes. He replied that his orders were to allow only motor vehicles through, and to send all horse transport round by a wide hairpin deviation, consisting of heavy sulcated tracks, which ultimately led back to the farther side of the village. I knew that the devia-

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tion meant adding another two or three miles' march to the day's work, and delaying by another hour our return to the wagon-line; and I looked at the wretched, panting horses and hesitated.
        To comprehend my subsequent action the reader must try to realise the state of my mind: in the first place, the vexation I felt about a regulation that seemed to treat machinery with more mercy than horses, and above all, the A.S.C. 2 and their lorries with greater consideration than the Royal Field Artillery. Why should motor transport enjoy the quickest and best roads, and horse-drawn traffic be allotted the longer and more difficult byways and lanes? There may, in fact there must, have been good reason for this apparent inhumanity; but it was certainly hard to imagine it at the time. Secondly, I looked at my worn-out horses and seriously wondered whether I should ever get the patient and long-suffering animals into condition again, if I imposed this further strain upon them. Lack of water is one of the chief causes of bad condition in horses; it makes them grow thin and debilitated. Thirdly — and this was simply a vague and insensate contributory cause of my subsequent action — I felt that as I had already, on many an eventful journey to the guns, succeeded in extricating my men and their horses from difficulties connected cither with the roads or the dangers of them, now, tired and parched as they were, they must be looking to me to protect them against the rigour of this preposterous and upstart regulation.
        The reader will perhaps bear all this in mind when once I have marshalled before his eyes sufficient evidence of the laudability of my motives to consider him in a fit condition to heal what it was I actually dared to do. For, let him thoroughly understand, I was in no contumacious mood, nor am I contumacious by nature; although I will readily concede that, perhaps, if instead of being a civilian in khaki, I had been a properly trained member of His Majesty's regular forces, the idea of doing what I ultimately did do, would never have entered my head.
        Now everybody must know that an officer who appears late on parade, or who so far forgets his duty as to present himself half-dressed before his superior, or who commits any other outrage calculated to undermine discipline and impair his prestige, must be prepared to meet swift and galling retribution, and is as a rule satisfied that he deserves it. But these unhappy contretemps occur; they are within the experience of most Army men, and in the light of history, where there is youth on the criminal's side they may be considered as venial. But (and here the reader is implored to think, not as a civilian, as I did, but as a. soldier) — but, I say, for an officer to "force a sentry," to ignore the authorised

        2. The A.S.C. in those days were not even the Royal Corps they are to-day.

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representative, at that point on his road, of his highest commanding officer, and to do so, not only in his own person and his horse, but also to impose the crime by command upon a whole procession of other soldiers and war-horses under his orders:— that, the reader will believe me, is more than a full General would venture to do; it is of all heinous offences the most cold-blooded, and of all derelictions of duty the most dastardly and villainous. And why? — Why? — Because he might as well undertake to beard the Secretary of State for War himself, surrounded by his staff; or browbeat the whole Army Council sitting at Whitehall, with Parliament and the millions of his fellow-men behind it. It is the action of an enemy, of a fugitive from justice, of an anarchist setting the whole of the established world-order at defiance. Perpetrated singly the crime is staggering enough; but executed with method by a group in disciplined formation, by precept, by example, and by the guilty connivance of all with all: — quite seriously, at this very hour, four years and several months after its occurrence, its magnitude almost eludes me.
        And yet this is what I proceeded to do. It was an act of madness — of lunatic anxiety resulting from the exaggeration of a fancied wrong, and of an impulsive but probably inaccurate judgment of the desperate condition of the horses — but I did it, and to this day I cannot think how I dared to do it.
        "Walk march!" I cried to the battery, leading the way the while along the very road my passage through which the sentry had been posted to arrest.
        "Halt!" shouted the sentry, and to my horror the battery seemed to hesitate between the two alternatives.
        "Walk march!" I yelled again, determined this time that my subordinates should share my crime with an easy grace; and, as the sinful men and horses filed by, for ever cursed as I thought they must. be by my own light-headed action, I halted and gave the sentry my name and the description of my Brigade and Battery.
        I felt my career as an officer, if not as a. human being, had come to an end; and as the last wagon slowly brought up the rear and I plunged forward to follow, I was already turning over in my mind the question of the time that might still be left me for settling my affairs in England.
        It is scarcely necessary to say that I did not sleep that night, or that I rose soon after dawn; for I was chafing at the uncertainty of a doom of which all I knew was that it must be tolerably hideous. As soon as I was dressed and had breakfasted, I ordered my horse, and then, after shouting a few words under the flap of the sergeant-major's tent, I trotted off, with my groom behind

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me, to the village eight or nine miles inland, where the A.P.M. of the Corps had his headquarters. I had determined on making a desperate effort to save both my name and my life, and wished to inform the A.P.M. of my crime before any news of it could possibly reach him from other sources.
        I reached X. at about 7 A.M., and proceeded at once to the A.P.M.'s office. He was just getting up at the time, but was good enough to say that he would see me before breakfast; and after waiting a few minutes I was ushered into his presence.
        He was an affable man, with pronounced and powerful features. He belonged to an old English county family, and was a cavalry officer. More I cannot say about him, for the reasons I have already stated. By his side, perusing some papers, sat a subaltern, whom I took to be his assistant.
        I opened my case by saying that I came to throw myself entirely upon his mercy, and proceeded to tell him all that had happened. Before I had half finished my narrative, however, to which he had listened with very courteous attention, he rose, and, beckoning me to follow him, led me to an outhouse that looked as if it might be a. shelter for messengers' horses and bicycles on a rainy day.
        "It's a pity you told me your story before that other fellow," he said. "Now I have no other alternative than to report it. But go on. You have, of course, as you know, committed a very serious offence."
        I confess I was a little astonished at the suggestion implied by his words, that I, a mere junior subaltern, should have invited a. Major, and the A.P.M. of my Corps to boot, into a corner, as it were, for a private and intimate conversation. Nevertheless I was so far encouraged by the unmistakable friendliness of his remarks that I finished my narrative without faltering.
        He looked very grave indeed. "Go back to your wagon-line," he said, "and write me a. full report of the incident, and I shall deal with it."
        I returned to my wagon-line, there to await my ignominious fate, although I confess that the A.P.M. had not actually increased my fears; and in my spare time I prepared a complete report of the whole incident, which, in due course, I despatched to the cavalry officer of good family.
        From that hour until the day when I was told there would be "no further developments" in connexion with my crime I may say I did not enjoy one second of real cheerfulness or peace, and to all my activities there clung that peculiar pathos as of leave-taking which is inseparable from everything that a man does when he thinks it is for the last time. How the authorities

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ever arrived at the conclusion that my grave offence should be overlooked never of course transpired. I have often thought that perhaps the sentry whose orders I chose to ignore may have failed to send in a confirmatory report of the incident, or that. he was killed that same night, or that he fell ill, or that he took pity on me, and that when the authorities realised that they had only my confession to deal with they decided to drop the question. At all events the fact remains that from that day to tins I have heard nothing further about it, except that one word from my Major (whom I had naturally informed about the matter) that there would be "no developments."
        Perhaps there was no keener horseman, or rather, no soldier in our battery more keen about the welfare of the horses, than No. 92803, Corporal Arney, of the Left Section. This extremely smart and good-tempered non-commissioned officer, who was always detailed for duty by the sergeant-major whenever I had any exceptional or difficult task to perform — for the B.S.M. knew my particular tastes — was unfortunately killed in action at Ginchy on the 26th of December 1916; and when I called upon his mother in London, as I did at the earliest opportunity, I expressed to her not only the deep regret we all felt over his loss — he was twenty-two years old when he died — but also what his death would mean to the horses of his section. I also told her the following story about her son, in order to give her some idea of the way in which Corporal Arney had ingratiated himself with us all, including the animal portion of our strength. Nor is it without very real pleasure that I now make this story, so highly creditable to the hero of it, public for the first time.
        It has been mentioned above that the supply of ammunition to the guns in action is a difficult and dangerous operation. The fire zone has to be entered and deeply penetrated, and the teams with their loaded wagons have to stand in exposed positions, while the ammunition is being removed to the shell-pits near the guns. Now I happened one day to be returning from the guns after having performed, this duty, and with me were the full quota of twelve wagons, a sergeant, a corporal and two bombardiers. We had been trotting a good deal in order to get clear of the shell-fire as quickly as possible, when suddenly a sharp upward incline in our road induced me to bring the battery to the ordinary slow walking pace. No sooner had we slackened our speed, however, than down came a number of heavy shells, both in front of us and on our flanks, which fell so fast and so near that I soon abandoned all hope of getting our men and horses out of the field of fire without severe casualties. Nevertheless despite the sharp ascent, I made the sign to trot, and, hoping

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for the best, made, so to speak, a dash for safety. Just at this juncture, however, as luck would have it, the sergeant cantered up to inform me that Corporal Arney's mare had that instant developed signs of colic — colic of all things, when we were under that fire! The sergeant proceeded to ask my permission to allow Corporal Arney to stay behind with his mare.
        The reader is probably aware that a horse taken with colic has to be walked about, and that this walking about sometimes lasts quite a long time. Now I knew Corporal Arney's attachment to his chestnut mare, and I also knew that he would certainly wish to walk her about himself. On the other hand I had no desire to lose a good N.C.O. Besides, if risks had to be taken, it was my plain military duty to risk the life not of a superior but of an inferior soldier, provided that the dangerous task to be accomplished were within the scope of an inferior soldier's powers and the measure of his responsibility. I therefore told the sergeant that Arney must mount one of the bombardiers' horses and return to his post with the battery immediately; and added that the bombardier should "walk" the sick mare. The proper thing in such a plight would have been to dismount on of the drivers to walk the mare; but this, obviously, I had no time to do.
        The sergeant departed to carry out my instructions, and I thought all was well, when suddenly I noticed Corporal Arney; cantering up to my side. I looked into his face with some surprise; it was bloated with anguish, and I saw that he was trying to speak and could not. It was not difficult to tell however, what he wished to say, and I proceeded to help him.
        "Well, Corporal," I said, "you are not happy about something. What is it? You probably want to go back to that mare of yours?"
        He nodded emphatically and smiled. "Yes, Sir, I do," he stammered.
        I was torn between my plain military duty and my personal affection for Arney. The logic of the problem seemed so utterly irreconcilable with a human solution of it, and moreover my very attachment to the Corporal so hopelessly opposed to my desire to deal kindly with him, that for a moment I was at a complete loss to know what to do for the best.
        "Very well," I said at last, "send the bombardier along!" And like a flash he pivoted round and made off to his mare and to the enemy fire.
        Corporal Arney came back, however, that day, and all of us were glad to see him and his mare again. His fate was reserved for another hour and another place, and four months later it overtook him.

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        Creditable and eminently desirable as the quality of keenness may be, however, particularly when animating the efforts of any man trying to discharge his duty well, it hardly compensates for a lack of knowledge; and it was precisely in knowledge that the difference between the New Army and the Old was most conspicuously revealed. The Major of our battery always used to say to me "You fellows of Kitchener's Army are tremendously sporting and all that, and you do surprisingly well in this war of positions; but wait until we get on the move, and then you'll find that it is the man of the Old Army, whether he be a corporal, a colonel, or a Corps General, who will have the say."
        True as this undoubtedly was of the New Army officer, its accuracy was certainly abundantly demonstrated to me in so far as our own rank and file were concerned; for among them the difference between Regular and Temporary Army was conspicuous. Let anything untoward happen, any accident or casualty that introduced fresh and unexpected complications into the routine of the day, and in such circumstances it was always the Old Army that came forward, and which, before you could say "knife," had contrived and applied the proper solution or remedy. The weakness of the British Army in France — shown particularly in March 1918 — was never its lack of keenness or willingness, it was its lack of proper knowledge and proper training, aggravated by the fact that the skeleton of Regular Army men that ramified throughout its structure was too slender and tenuous adequately to support its whole weight.
        In our battery, for instance, there were only four Regular men, consisting of the Major himself, the B.S.M., the corporal signaller. and the sergeant of my section (the Right Section). In the absence of all these — and one of them could not be present at all parades — everything went smoothly provided that no untoward incident occurred. The moment, however, that the normal course was arrested or disturbed by any unforeseen circumstance, their need was immediately felt by all.
        During the last battles of the Somme, when our guns were in action just behind Mouquet Farm, I remember an incident which provided a striking proof of this disparity between the Old and the New Army. It was early in November 1916; the mud for miles around our position was so deep that whole G.S. wagons, not to mention horses and mules, had been swallowed up by it, and a small and very inadequate field railway was the only means of supply for all the brigades and infantry units holding that part of the line. In the circumstances it was of course impossible to keep the guns supplied with ammunition in the usual way — that is to say, by bringing the wagons up to them — and

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since the field railway was loo heavily congested by the needs of the infantry to be of any use to us, the horses of the battery had to be employed as pack mules, and were led up to the gun position with the shell slung across their backs. The extreme danger of this method of feeding the guns consists in the fact that the horses have to be walked the whole of the distance from the ammunition dump to the gun position, and that their slow rate of progress in the area under enemy fire unduly increases their risk of being wounded or killed. It was not surprising, therefore, that many horses were lost in tills way, nor doubtless will it surprise anyone to hear that many were lost quite unnecessarily as the result of the inexperience of the men of the New Army.
        The incident to which I referred above was an example of this. One of our horses had just come up to the gun position, led by his driver, when an enemy H.E. shell, bursting some fifteen to twenty yards away, hurled one of its deadly splinters at his head, and caused him to plunge and rear. Blood immediately began to pour from the poor beast's mouth and nose in a manner that would have made any superficial observer suspect that the fragment of shell had caused some internal haemorrhage. And indeed the flow was so copious that it seemed impossible that the horse could survive for long, although he continued to stand perfectly steadily.
        Here was obviously a mishap which all the keenness and good will in Christendom could not repair, and any moment the New Army men who witnessed it expected the end to come. The driver, a typical Kitchener recruit, even led the horse discreetly away to a particularly large shell-crater close by, and halted him in tins improvised grave in anticipation of his gruesome fate. Imagine now the profound impression made upon us all when one of the four Regulars whom I have mentioned — I forget whether it was the B.S.M., the sergeant of the Right Section, or the corporal signaller — walked quietly up to the horse and. after examining him, picked up a small stone, rolled it in the thickness of his handkerchief, pressed it into the wound, which proved to be just under the cheek-strap — and from which when the cheek-strap was pulled aside, the blood flowed as from out a spout — and thus effectually arrested the bleeding. A bandage consisting of a portion of a puttee completed the dressing, and the horse was saved and lived to do good work. It was a small thing to do, but it was the only right thing. I had no doubt at the time that had no Regular soldier been present the animal would most certainly have died.
        Such is the relative value of simple keenness and sound knowledge. It is possible that had the latter been more general the war might have been won in half the time; but without the former

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the New Army would never have been possible at all, and the misery of the horses of that Army would have been increased a thousandfold. As it was, the fate of these patient animals was not really very much harder than that of their human attendants, and if acts of neglect were rare, acts of deliberate cruelty, at least as far as my own experience went, were utterly unknown.