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Across the Fence: The War Horse
November 18, 2016 M. Timothy Nolting   

Read more by M. Timothy Nolting
My Great-Grandfather William Fredrick Gustav Nolting was a Prussian immigrant, who came to America in the late 1800s. He was a commanding officer in the Prussian Cavalry and brought with him his rather harsh military demeanor of command and discipline.

According to lore, he drove his team of horses and wagon to Atchison to hire workers, transients from the east, who could be found at the railyards. Two likely fellows agreed to the work, and accompanied great-grandfather to the homestead, a short day’s travel from Atchison. During the trip, great-grandfather emphasized to the men the importance of following orders, no matter what. I can almost hear him barking orders in his husky broken English.

“You will do as I say und ask no questions! Ya?”

When they arrived at the homestead, the three men climbed down from the wagon and great-grandpa gave his first order. “Go to the shed over there, get the bucksaw hanging on the wall and cut in two the tongue from off this wagon.”

The two men stared at him blankly, not sure they had actually heard what he had just ordered. One of the men asked: “Why the devil would you want to cut the wagon tongue in two?”

“Get off my place!” Great-grandpa barked, pointing the way down the road. “I said you will follow my orders, not to question my authority. Now go!”

Perhaps such harshness and inflexibility were required as a Prussian Officer in a country that was trammeled by war through much of its history. I wonder what he might have thought when the war began in Europe and his homeland Prussia, now called Germany, declared war on France. I also wonder what he thought when his son, my grandfather, enlisted in the U.S. Cavalry to serve in a war against Germany.

Both great-grandfather and grandfather were horsemen. Their horses were used mostly for work, but they also kept horses strictly for transportation and their riding horses were considered pets. Of course, for great-grandfather, as a Cavalry man, the horse was also a tool of war.

Throughout history the horse was used in battle as the equivalent of an armored personnel tank. The horse was both a means of transportation and protection for the mounted warrior. WWI was the last war in which horses were used extensively in combat. At the start of that war, cavalry units were active in the German, French and British military. The cavalry charge must have been an awesome and frightening military maneuver. One of the last cavalry charges of that war took place at the Battle of Somme in 1916 when the 20th Deccan Horse unit attacked German positions at High Wood. During the battle, the 20th Deccan lost 102 men and 130 horses.

Barbed wire barricades, the expansive network of trenches, long-range bombardment, machine guns and armored tanks rendered mounted attacks ineffective and suicidal. However, the horse played an important role in that first global conflict by transporting supplies, ammunition, the dead and wounded.

From the beginning of the German invasion in 1914, the British Army had about 25,000 horses and immediately conscripted an additional 500,000 to serve in battle. In the first year, the entire country was scoured for every workhorse, pony and thoroughbred. This was a devastating blow to farmers who relied on their horses to perform everyday farm work. The horses were used in mounting cavalry attacks, hauling heavy artillery, and transporting critical supplies and ammunitions. They also pulled ambulances which traveled non-stop from the front lines to field hospitals and temporary morgues in the rear.

The dwindling supply of horses needed to be replaced. The United States, with Australia and New Zealand, supplied more than 150,000 horses. Ship convoys brought horses from the United States to the European theatre. They were put aboard ships, which transported them across the Atlantic from 1914-1917. An average of 1,000 horses were sent to Europe each day, a total of more than 1,500,000 horses over time.

The horses were vital to the success of the Allies and horse convoys were targeted by German U-boats, torpedoed and sunk before arriving in France. The horses that did arrive safely were sent to the battlefields and became strategic targets. Without the horses, vital supplies would have not reached the frontline trenches.

Horses died by the thousands. The causes of death ranged from artillery and rifle fire, malnourishment, exhaustion to drowning. In the battles of Somme and Passchendaele, French and British casualties totaled more than 860,000 men; German casualties were nearly as high. The loss of horses was more than half the combined total of all human casualties.

After the war, the tens of thousands of surviving horses were sold for butchering. By the end of the war, there were 13,000 surviving horses from Australia. Eleven thousand of those were shipped to India for the British Army. The remaining 2,000 were shot. Only one, a horse named Sandy, was returned to Australia. Winston Churchill, then the 44-year-old Secretary of State for War, arranged for the return of more than 50,000 horses to the United Kingdom. Records for the number of horses returned to the United States could not be found.

To raise awareness of the plight of the war horse, French artist Fortunio Matania rendered the painting titled “Goodbye Old Man,” which was widely circulated on flyers accompanied by the poem, “A Soldier’s Kiss” by Henry Chappell, a fitting tribute to a fallen war horse:

Only a dying horse! pull off the gear,

And slip the needless bit from frothing jaws,

Drag it aside there, leaving the road way clear,

The battery thunders on with scarce a pause.

Prone by the shell-swept highway there it lies

With quivering limbs, as fast the life-tide fails,

Dark films are closing o’er the faithful eyes

That mutely plead for aid where none avails.

Onward the battery rolls, but one, there speeds

Heedlessly of comrades, voice or bursting shell,

Back to the wounded friend who lonely bleeds

Beside the stony highway where he fell.

Only a dying horse! he swiftly kneels,

Lifts the limp head and hears the shivering sigh

Kisses his friend, while down his cheek, there steals

Sweet pity’s tear, “Goodbye old man, Goodbye.”

No honours wait him, medal, badge or star,

Though scarce could war a kindlier deed unfold;

He bears within his breast, more precious far

Beyond the gift of kings, a heart of gold.

Although the First World War marked the end of the large-scale use of horses in battle, horses and mules continued to be used, for packing supplies to areas where deep snow, mud and steep hills prohibited vehicle access during World War II and Korea. Horses are still used in some locations today. Out of the Korean War came an equine heroine named Reckless.

On October 26, 1952, Korean born Ah Chim Hai (Flame-of-the-Morning) was inducted into the 2nd Battalion of the 5th United States Marine Corp. Seeing the need for horsepower versus manpower to carry more than two 23-pound rounds of 75mm ammunition, Lt. Eric Pedersen took the company jeep and headed to Seoul. There he found a young Korean boy who was selling his horse to get the money to buy an artificial limb for his sister, who had lost her leg after stepping on a land mine. Petersen paid the $250 from his own pocket.

Flame of the Morning was a Mongolian mare weighing less than 900 pounds at little more than 13 hands. She became known as “Reckless” and would prove her worth through strength, endurance, determination and loyalty.

The Chinese launched an all-out attack on four different Marine outposts called the Nevada complex. Outpost Reno was completely overrun with all hands lost. Outpost Vegas faired little better with only a handful of survivors out of a 600-man unit. Outposts Elko and Carson held.

The 2nd Battalion was ordered to retake Vegas and a counterattack was organized. The battle of Outpost Vegas was launched in March of 1953 and is said to have brought an intensity of cannonading and bombing seldom experienced in battle during any engagement either before or after. Enemy incoming pounded the Vegas Outpost at a rate of 500 rounds per minute. The battle raged for five days and on one of those days Reckless made 51 trips, a total of 35 miles, from the ammo supply to the top of Vegas hill carrying six to eight rounds, nearly 200 pounds, with each trip. Under constant enemy fire she was twice wounded, but did not stop. Outpost Vegas was successfully retaken.

At the end of the war, Reckless was shipped back to the United States, where she was retired at Camp Pendleton, California. The mare was awarded two Purple Hearts along with multiple other military decorations and was promoted to “Sgt. Reckless”.

October 26, 2016, Reckless was commemorated with a life-size bronze statue dedicated at Camp Pendleton on the 64th anniversary of her Marine Corp induction.

Editor’s note: Nebraska columnist M. Timothy Nolting has won several press awards. His first book, containing 50 selected columns from the past six years, Volume I of “101 Yesterdays” will be available soon. To order, contact Tim at acrossthefence2day@gmail.com

Reckless in training Korea 1953
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