In 1937, a car carrying Rebecca West got stuck in a snowdrift on a Croatian hilltop. “Peasants ran out of a cottage near by,” she wrote, “shouting with laughter because machinery had made a fool of itself, and dug out the automobile with incredible rapidity. They were doubtless anxious to get back and tell a horse about it.” West’s prose shimmers with imagination, and she has a way of being highly illuminating when she’s merely incidental, as she is here. You can almost feel the car blushing and hear the horse and peasants snickering together in the dim light of winter. And in this passage, just in passing, West reveals a historical divide. You could look out, it seemed, from that snowy hilltop in two very different directions: into the watershed of the past, full of horses and peasants, and into the watershed of the immediate future, apparently full of machinery. It was a vista you could find almost anywhere in 1937.
Yet when war began again, two years later, it was again a war of horses, like the one that ended in 1918. We think of World War II as a war of men and machines—of blitzkrieg and aerial bombardment. But it was also, especially on the Eastern Front, a war of horses pulling armaments and ineffectual vehicles through mud and snow, just as World War I had been. In that war, the German army—to cite only one of the warring nations—used 1.8 million horses. Nearly one and a quarter million of them died.*
By the end of World War II, Germany had put 2.7 million horses into service, with a death toll of 1.8 million. According to one historian, German infantry divisions during World War II “possessed more than twice as many horses as an equivalent division in the First World War.” Why so many more horses? Because there were so many more machines, and the machines were so much heavier. And because the German army soon began to experience what Richard Overy calls “demodernisation.” In Russia, by December 1941, he writes in Why the Allies Won, “the Panzer armies were using horses again.” Machinery was making a fool of itself and of everyone else, and there was no joking this time. It was another tragedy for horses, like every war before it.
“A horse’s mind does not adapt to modern thinking,” says Ann Hyland in Equus, her study of horses in the Roman world. It belongs, instead, to the eternal present. It isn’t just the massive size of the animals that makes them look so exposed in war photos. It’s also their unblinking awareness of the moment, the seemingly limitless gaze of their large, dark eyes. They don’t…
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