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Visiting "Warhorse to Horsepower"

The Tank Museum at Bovington in the UK has recently launched this major new exhibit, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to its opening.

The exhibit examines the role of horses before, during and after the First World War. The key theme is the British Army’s transition from horsed cavalry to armoured vehicles, and the reasons behind this major shift in land warfare.

As the Museum's exhibits Officer Sarah Lambert said to me, "The central theme of the exhibit is to explain how the nature of the fighting in the First World War led to the decline of the cavalry and rise of the tank during the 1920s and 30s.” 

     

 

Mechanisation

“Mechanisation," or "Mechanicalisation" as it was called at the time, me
ant the steady replacement of horse drawn transport by self-propelled vehicles, and it wasn’t just the military who was seeing this transition -- by the time of the First World War, all the horse-drawn buses in London had been replaced by motorised ones.

The days of the cavalry were numbered. There was resistance, amongst the higher ranks in particular, but most could see the very obvious benefits and tactical advantages offered by the engine.  

My very own Tank Corps, later the Royal Tank Corps, had been mechanized from the very start, although during the war some officers still preferred to control a group of tanks from the saddle. It was 1928 before the first two cavalry regiments, the 11th Hussars and 12th Lancers, exchanged their horses for armored cars, and it was not until the outbreak of the Second World War that the rest of them followed. It’s important to note that I don't include the Royal Artillery in this as they remained faithful to the horse for many more years in order to pull the guns. 

The exhibit is touching and extremely emotional, as it shows the soldiers heartfelt attachment to their horses, something I certainly never had with my various service vehicles. Well, other than cursing them upon breakdown. A horrible statistic states that it is estimated that in excess of eight million horses, donkeys and mules died during the course of WWI. 

  

 

The Mark IV replica tank has been placed centre stage alongside a number of set-piece scenes, including a front-line stable, a trench dug-out, a pre-war street scene and nine beautiful sculptured horses placed throughout the exhibit. 

 


The Replica MK IV makes an appearance in the “Warhorse” movie.

Emotion

General Jack Seely, who led one of the last great cavalry charges in history at the Battle of Moreuil Wood in March 1918, comments regarding his own horse during WWI:

“He had to endure everything most hateful to him – violent noise, the bursting of great shells and bright flashes at night, when the white light of bursting shells must have caused violent pain to such sensitive eyes as horses possess. Above all, the smell of blood, terrifying to every horse.”

 

 

You will also see in the new exhibit four iconic vehicles from the Museum’s collection: the Hornsby Tractor, the Peerless Armored Car, the huge 5-turreted Independent, and the Light Mark IIA. 

   
The Independent (left) - Fuel consumption was about one mile per gallon while the engine got through lubricating oil at the rate of 4.5 gallons per hour.

 

By the time the British Army went to war again in 1939, it had become almost totally mechanized and had become completely mechanized a year or two later. This is in marked contrast to the German Army which retained a substantial horse-drawn element right through to the end of the Second World War.

To see more on the Tank Museum exhibit, take a look at the Museum's official video:

 I was touched by Warhorse to Horsepower, more than I imagined I would be. There is absolutely no denying the historical significance of the exhibit, but it is so much more than just that.

 

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