War Horses of Wiltshire
Wiltshire has a history of an association with the military and during the First World War the county was home to one of the few female run remount depots at Russley Park, near Swindon.
Remount depots were established by the army in order to provide fresh, healthy and well trained horses, donkeys and mules for army use in peace time and during times of conflict. In 1887 the remount section was established within the army replacing the earlier responsibility that each individual regiment had for providing its own animals. The South African War (1899-1902) had established a ‘best practice’ in order to get the most out of these animals and a horse registration scheme was introduced. This identified suitable animals for possible purchase and army use and depots to deal with them were established at Woolwich, Arborfield near Reading and Melton Mowbray, employing three inspectors to oversee the potential purchase and care of the animals.
In the event of war it was estimated that 110,000 animals would be needed and in 1912 and 1913 a horse census was undertaken, dividing the country into 24 sections each with a Remount Officer responsible for the identification of potential horses. This groundwork proved invaluable and when the First World War began 140,000 horses were purchased efficiently and quickly.
More horse depots were established and convenient railway stations identified for the movement of the animals as they were mobilised. Regular checks were conducted by vets and the horses were rested and fed and watered regularly; they needed to be in excellent condition for the theatre of war that they would be taking part in. The remount depots were essential for the training of these horses, initially those purchased from within this country and later those imported from oversees, especially Canada. Horses that had recovered from injury could also be re-trained and sent back to the ongoing conflict.
Unusually in Wiltshire we had a remount depot that was staffed entirely by women – Russley Park, near Baydon and Bishopstone in North Wiltshire. It was established in 1916 and run by Lady Mabel Birkbeck with Mrs. Ironside as her Head Groom. Their female staff consisted of women with a good understanding of horses. They might be ‘gentlewomen’ who had spent their lives around horses, perhaps hunting regularly, or farmers’ wives and daughters who had kept and ridden horses as part of their daily life. Either way they had a unique affinity with the animals and were prepared for hard work in the retraining that was required. Russley Park had a capacity for 100 animals and actually received 365 during the course of the First World War, producing 308 that were suitable for army use. They concentrated on the horses belonging to officers, and once re-trained they were quickly sent back to the front. The Times of 4th December 1915 mentions the remount depots and particularly the women of the South Berkshire Hunt who had been invited to help by the artist and illustrator Cecil Adlin, himself a Remount Officer in Berkshire. The ‘lady grooms’ were also known as ‘strappers’ (as opposed to ‘slackers’) and were commended by the General in charge of horse supply in that same article in the Times. Cecil Aldin was instrumental in promoting the employment of women as a recommendation to the War Office and his staff actually included his wife and daughter.
The women themselves would often walk to the station to collect the incoming horses, donkeys and mules, a distance of perhaps a number of miles, and then walk back controlling horses that were roped together perhaps five abreast. They worked hard, mucking out the stables, grooming, feeding and caring for the horses and they often had to endure quite harsh living conditions themselves. When exercising they would often work with two horses at any one time, demonstrating their adept skills in horsemanship. Their appearance often caused comments locally as they dressed in breeches and caps and rode astride the horses, making this ultimately more socially acceptable. They were highly thought of by those in charge and were highly praised for their efforts and efficiency.
Russley Park itself had been used as a racing stable and was well designed and set up for such a venture. In 1916 the property was discussed in parliament as recorded in Hansard’s, as it had been purchased by the War Office with the intention of setting it up as a breeding establishment to provide horses for the army. In the event this did not happen but perhaps this was influenced more by the move towards mechanised transport in the armed services and the reduction in the need for horses. In fact World War One was perhaps the last to rely on animals so the work of the ladies at Russley Park is perhaps unique and is thought to be one of only three remount depots in the country at that time that was in the sole charge of women.
Local Studies Assistant