FORT SILL, Okla., July 13, 2017 -- Horses are often seen as majestic creatures, whether in the show ring, on the race track, or running wild and free.
However, they were more often seen as beasts of burden, in peace and in war. More than 8 million horses, mules and donkeys died in World War I alone. These rugged animals transported ammunition and supplies over landscapes that vehicles could not navigate. And they suffered the same fate as the human warriors, dying from shellfire, weather, chemical gas, or disease.
But they labored just as heroically as did their humans on all sides of the war.
Mustard gas was first used in World War I and was heavy and oily, collecting in trenches and clinging to clothing and horse hair for up to a week. Manes were sometimes clipped to avoid trapping gas in the long hair. Various methods were used to create masks for horses, mostly to protect their respiratory system since their eyes were relatively unaffected by mustard gas. However, they did get skin blisters and could suffer by eating contaminated feed.
Farm horses from Great Britain and Europe were commandeered for the war effort, to the heartbreak of many families who loved and cared for them, and relied on them for farming and transportation. Only about 60,000 horses survived the war, and a fraction of those made it back home.
The movie "War Horse" shows the Great War from the perspectives of the horse and his owner, who had sold him to the British Cavalry. The peaceful pasture of its home is contrasted with the stark brutality of war for horse and man. That story, however, had a happy ending.
The Marines lay claim to perhaps the most famous war horse, Staff Sgt. Reckless, the Mongolian mare whose courage in the Korean War is legendary.
During the Battle of Outpost Vegas in 1953 she made 51 unaccompanied trips carrying 9,000 pounds of ammunition over rugged terrain. She carried wounded Marines back, and returned again with ammo. Her handlers taught her to kneel during incoming fire, to step over tripwires, and memorize routes to and from battle stations. Reckless was wounded twice and received two Purple Hearts and numerous other awards.
Robin Hutton wrote a book about her and was quoted by Fox News as saying, "She wasn't a horse, she was a Marine. When the Marines got her, they became her herd. She bonded with them and would do anything for them."
Reckless died in 1968 and was buried with full military honors at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif.
A Civil War horse has a modest connection to Fort Sill in that he belonged to Union Gen. Philip Sheridan, who staked out Fort Sill in 1869 during a winter campaign against the Indians.
He was originally named for a Mississippi town, Rienzi, where the 2nd Regiment Michigan Cavalry was stationed in 1862. That was when he was given to then-colonel of the regiment Sheridan. Rienzi was a 3-year-old Morgan horse, and was wounded (not seriously) in several skirmishes of the Civil War.
In a blog written for the Smithsonian Institute's Museum of American History, the "horse" says, "(M)y finest hour came on October 19, 1864, when the Confederates under Jubal Early engaged the Army of the Shenandoah at Cedar Creek. 'Little Phil' and I returned from Washington, D.C. the evening before, and spent the night in Winchester, Virginia; when the sound of distant artillery could be heard at dawn the next morning, we sped off to the battlefield. Being fleet of foot, I covered the 15 mile distance in several hours, and we arrived at the battlefield around 10:30 a.m. We rallied the troops and repulsed the Confederate attack. Victory was ours! I became something of a celebrity after that."
He was then renamed Winchester, and that famous ride was immortalized in a poem by Thomas Buchanan Read titled "Sheridan's Ride."
The poem ends, "Here is the steed that saved the day/By carrying Sheridan into the fight,/From Winchester--twenty miles away!"
Apparently it's a "thing" to have beloved animals permanently mounted by a taxidermist after their deaths, and Winchester now resides in the Smithsonian's National Museum.
Horses have also been used more recently in the War on Terror. The book "Horse Soldiers" by Doug Stanton, tells of a handful of horse-mounted Special Forces Soldiers who secretly fought against the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11. A movie of the same name is due for release next year.
Memorials to horses have been erected in various parts of the world. The Army Quartermaster Museum in Fort Lee, Va. has a plaque honoring the horses and mules that served during World War I.
"What they suffered is beyond words to describe," states the plaque. Gen. John Pershing is quoted, 'The Army horses and mules proved of inestimable value in prosecuting the war to a successful conclusion. They were found in all the theaters of preparation and operation doing their silent but faithful work without the faculty of hoping for any reward or compensation."
Human and animal deaths are a tragic consequence of war. It is only fitting that the animals pressed into service be honored for their loyalty and courage for the parts they played in history.