Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

Horses in Warfare

Peace year book By National Peace Council, 1912

No humanitarian worthy of the name can fail to feel satisfaction at the rapid progress of the Peace Movement, for every war is inevitably a great set-back to all the principles for which humanitarianism contends. We have advanced, it may be said, to a point where some sort of reprobation, however inadequate, is beginning to be felt and expressed for certain barbarous practices which spring from barbarous habits of mind. What, then, must be the effect, when, in a particular department of life, and over a considerable area of the world, all, or nearly all, such ethical considerations are suddenly withdrawn, and semi-civilised men is exhorted to take a deep draught of aboriginal savagery? How will it fare with that sympathetic regard for human well-being which in peace we so sedulously foster, when some nine-tenths, perhaps, of our population are animated, as they are in time of war, by an almost complete disregard for any such consideration?

Still worse is the case with respect to the sufferings of animals in warfare. We are rightly concerned about the every-day ill-treatment of horses, but to what insignificant proportions do those cruelties shrink beside those committed—as a matter of daily routine, and beyond all reach of protest—in time of war, when more injuries are inflicted on horses in a week than those recorded in the lists of the R.S.P.C.A. in a year! Let zoophilists, then, before they condone war, remember what war means to the horses, no less than to the men engaged as combatants.

But it is on behalf of the horse when wounded in battle that we would now appeal. We do not think it can be denied that man does a cruel wrong to the horse in using him on the battlefield. Far wiser than all the sentimental stuff that poets have written of the warrior and war-horse are the words of Leigh Hunt:—

O friend of Man! O noble creature,
Patient and brave and mild by nature,
Mild by nature, and mute as mild,
Why brings he to these passes wild—
Thee, gentle Horse, thou shape of beauty?
Could he not do his dreadful duty—
If duty it be, which seems mad folly—
Nor link thee to his melancholy?

But if men must employ the horse in war, they should at least provide adequate means for the relief of his sufferings, and this obligation should be sanctioned by international agreement. It should be a recognised duty to visit the scene of battle after the fighting is over to relieve or put an end to the sufferings of badly wounded animals; and those who do so should have the same protection as is afforded by the terms of the Geneva Convention to ambulances attending to wounded men. But at present these merciful provisions extend only to human combatants, and the Red Cross affords no protection whatever to the army veterinary department, so that no relief can be given to wounded horses except at risk of human life. What horrible scenes result from this negligence of an obvious duty will be remembered by many who read the descriptions of the South African battle-fields, when horses were left to linger in prolonged agonies, and were often mutilated by vultures before life was extinct.

It is clear, therefore, that all humanitarians and all friends of Peace should unite in demanding that the rights of horses should receive some sort of recognition in times of war. The British Government might be urged to invite the other Powers to agree to extend the Geneva Convention, so as to protect the veterinary surgeon and the horse ambulance, and thus to put an end to a state of things which is a disgrace to nations claiming to be in any degree humane. We suggest that this question of the treatment of horses in warfare is well worthy of consideration at one of the National Peace Congresses; for no branch of the humanitarian movement can be carried to a successful conclusion with does not have regard to the suffering of all sentient beings—human and sub-human alike. The horse has played a most important part in human history—in war, and in peace—and so long as mankind persists in the folly of war, its debt to the horse cannot be evaded on the battle-field with any more justice than in the labours of agriculture or commerce.

[It may be recalled that during the South African War over 400,000 horses were killed and wounded.—Ed.]

H. S. Salt