October 2015

Phoebe Merrick ‘Horses for the War – Romsey Remount Depot’ & AGM.
The provision and training of horses destined for service in WW1
October 2015

The October meeting of the Society was addressed by Phoebe Merrick, who took as her subject ‘Horses for the War—Romsey Remount Depot’ which related to the procurement and training of horses destined for service in World War I.

This was the last major conflict where horses played such a major role in all aspects of transport; including a front-line role. As the war progressed their functions were superseded by lorries, tanks, aircraft, etc., however, horses continued to play a significant role throughout the war and the remount depots ensured the continuing supply of animals and provided the British Army on the continent with 1.1 million horses during 1914-18.

Remount depots had been formalised by the army in 1887. The headquarters was at Woolwich with depots at Arborfield and Melton Mowbray. It was estimated that in the Boer War there would be a need for 7000 horses and 9000 mules, but in the event 500,000 animals were required. There were many fundamental mistakes made resulting in heavy losses of the animals due to ‘non-operational’ reasons. Attention to correcting these mistakes ensured that during WWI the ‘non-operational’ casualties were reduced to a little over 1% of horses.

In the early 20th century a scheme was introduced to earmark, at a fixed price, 7000 ‘hand picked’ horses which would be immediately available when the need arose. When WWI became likely, this figure was doubled. It was also considered that the army would ultimately need 110,000 horses in the event of war in Europe. A census of horses revealed that the numbers available in Great Britain were insufficient to supply this need; Britain therefore bought animals overseas, particularly from North America.

Horses had to be bought on an almost ‘industrial scale,’ but the greatest of care and attention was used to ensure that only those meeting strict criteria would be acquired. The welfare of all animals was paramount from the time of purchase through their long period of travel in their own country and shipment to Great Britain. They were then transported to an appropriate remount depot for training and subsequent shipment to the continent: it was a complex and major operation. To address these challenges and to ensure maximum fitness, regular examinations of the animals by veterinary doctors (vets) was carried out; correct diet was ensured; rest days were planned; knowledgeable soldiers (each responsible for three horses) became handlers – the greatest care and a rigid adherence to hygiene prevailed.

Not surprisingly, additional remount depots were opened in many parts of the country. The remount depot at Romsey was built, (late 1914/early 1915) on about 500 acres of land acquired at Ranvilles Farm, south-west of Romsey some nine miles from Southampton Docks. The depot was built to accommodate ten squadrons, each comprising about 200 officers and men and managing some 500 animals. The buildings included a veterinary hospital, an isolation hospital and a series of paddocks. The first squadron took occupation in March1915 and the camp was completed by September at a cost of £156,000. When fully operational, the camp comprised some 2000 personnel which must have had an important effect on the town of Romsey with it’s population of 4469!

The horses destined for the Romsey Remount were mostly shipped from North America to Devonport and there collected by the Romsey staff, which then had full responsibility for the animals until fully trained. Usually the trained horses were taken by train to Southampton and thence by ship to the continent sometimes accompanied by their Romsey handlers.

During the war some 141,000 horses were supplied to the army by Romsey out of a total requirement of 1.1 million. At the conclusion of hostilities the animals remaining at the remount depot were sold as were some of the buildings and the land returned to agricultural use.

The speaker gave a most fascinating and comprehensive account of the daily life of the animals that passed through the depot and of the men who trained and managed them. It was a talk much appreciated by the members and visitors. It was also very pleasing to hear that the Romsey War Memorial Park, constructed in1920, has recently been provided, by public subscription, with a fine bronze statue, entitled ‘War Horse and Trooper’ sculpted by Amy Goodman, commemorating the Romsey Remount Depot and those who served there.

The meeting was preceded by the AGM where, with the exception of George Hollobone who formally retired, all the remaining officers and committee were re-elected. George was thanked very sincerely for his contribution to the work of the Society over many years. The next meeting will be held on Friday, 27 November when the speaker will be Nick Saunders, whose subject will be ‘A brief history of New Milton – from Domesday to the present day’ Visitors welcome.