It was the donkey that did it. When I saw the image (provided by the National Army Museum) of that patient beast in its Red Cross headdress, exemplifying the way that a myriad animals joined military personnel in hell on earth for up to four long years, I wanted to pay a small tribute to them.
Knowing what its effect would be, I didn’t even consider going to see the film War Horse a few years ago. Those I spoke to afterwards agreed it was a very emotional movie, but nevertheless it did much to highlight the contribution that horses made during World War One.
Of the 10,000 horses sent overseas from New Zealand during that war, only four – Beauty, Bess, Dolly and Nigger – came home. Do the numbers; that’s a major sacrifice from the steeds that were ridden into battle or used to cart and carry. Like their riders, they were brave. The Turks called the ANZACs “devils on horses” as they never knew where the mounted ANZACs would strike next. The long-suffering animals were expected to cover between 40 and 90 miles (60–150km) a day, with artillery horses also pulling a heavy load of armour.
While many of those horses paid the ultimate price in conditions that would be abhorrent to us today, including insufficient food and water, mud, rain, snow and the noise of explosions, a shortage of transport and quarantine restrictions made it impractical for survivors to return to New Zealand. Most of them were sold locally or destroyed. Several of the soldiers who disliked the way the local people treated animals chose to destroy their horses rather than submit them to a life of sustained misery after all they’d already been through. One soldier wrote of having to shoot his old mate. It broke his heart.