The image of the ‘war horse’ has entered our popular imagination thanks to the Michael Morpurgo book and the subsequent highly acclaimed stage play and film.
The concept has particular resonance in Romsey as it is the place where horses were prepared for life on the front line during the First World War .
This link with the past is being remembered at next month’s Romsey Show, which, for the first time in its 172-year history will have a theme: “World War One and Hampshire Life 1914 – 1918”.
As well as all the usual attractions the show will recall the days of the Romsey Remount Camp by recreating a small part of it on the showground.
Skinner’s Horse, a Wiltshire-based group dedicated to portraying the dash and glamour of one of the most famous Indian cavalry regiments at the time of the Raj, will depict life on the home front by re-enacting the work of the Army Remount Service, who procured horses, mules, donkeys and even camels for the whole Army.
In conjunction with the Imperial War Museum’s Centenary Partnership, Skinner’s Horse will also present a spectacular mounted display, entitled Cavalry of Empire, in which soldiers from all corners of the British Empire, including India, Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand, will demonstrate the arms and equipment they carried into battle and how they adapted to the changing face of war from 1914 to 1918.
In addition, show organisers have brought together a unique collection of First World War-themed events that include an aerial display by seven replica aircraft, a horse-drawn field gun from the Royal Armouries, the tank that appeared in the War Horse film and a 1915 field ambulance and FANYs nursing display plus military farriers and padres exhibition.
When war broke out in 1914, horse-power was still the prime method of moving the Army and its supplies, so around 500 acres of Broadlands’ land at the top of Pauncefoot Hill was assigned to the Romsey Remount Camp for the processing of tens of thousands of horses from all over the world.
Designed in two sections, North Camp and South Camp, with the officers’ quarters and the military hospital between the two, construction of the camp by some 800 men began in November 1914 and the first two horses arrived five months later.
By 1916, it is thought that Romsey would have housed around 2,000 military and civilian staff and about 5,000 horses at any one time.
This made Romsey the largest of the four main remount camps around the country, the others at Avonmouth and Liverpool being mainly concerned with the import of horses and mules from North and South America and Ireland, while Swaythling was a collection centre for animals being shipped abroad.
Romsey was the key to the whole operation. Commanded by Colonel H.M. Jessel, its role was to ensure that the horses were fit for army use and then train them for the many tasks they were put to.
Pat Genge, in her LTVAS paper about the Romsey Remount Camp, says that it was divided into 10 squadrons, each squadron containing about 40 ‘rough riders’ who broke in young horses, a farrier sergeant, shoeing smiths and saddlers.
Other aspects of the camp included the cultivation of some 40 acres of potatoes and the saving of old horseshoes, horse hair, hoof parings, jam jars, old wire and string – all of which were sold to raise money for the camp. The sale of manure alone raised £4,000 from 1916 to 1918.
Many horses arrived by train and a special handling yard was built in the sidings of Romsey railway station to cope with the volume. The horses were then walked through the town and over Mainstone bridge to Pauncefoot.
They usually stayed about a month, so the men were kept busy day and night with shipments arriving and departing from Southampton Docks. In March 1917, 1,200 Romsey horses were embarked from Southampton in three days, and another 1,000 the following week.
It is estimated that 1.3 million horses took part in the war but they proved no match for machine guns and tanks and only about one in 10 survived.
Pat Genge recounts that in February 1920, with the end of the war, 480 huts and 68 horse shelters were advertised for sale at the Romsey Remount Camp and hard core from the site was used in the establishment of the Town Memorial Park .
She concludes: “Walking along the old road now, from Cutters Barn through to Ridge Farm, there is absolutely no indication of the 2,000 men and 5,000 horses that once filled the acres round about.”
Romsey Show takes place at Broadlands on Saturday, September 13. .
Children under 11 go free and tickets are available on the day or in advance with savings of up to 25 per cent. Visit romsey show.co.uk for more details.