World War 1 History: Russian Wolves, Business as Usual and War Horses
The Glorious Dead
The three stories in this article are not in many histories of the Great War and are not generally well-known or well-documented, yet I feel they are quite evocative. Since they are so short, I decided to put them into a single article. Their only relationship to each other is that they are all connected to the 1914-1918 War, and that they all show, in their own small way, the horror and absurdity that is war.
In the winter of 1916-1917, the Eastern Front stretched for more than a thousand miles from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. During that winter, half-starved Russian wolves converged on both the German and Russian lines in the northern part of the front in the Vilnius-Minsk region. As their desperation increased beyond their fear of humans, the wolves started attacking individuals but were soon attacking groups of soldiers so viciously and often that something had to be done. The soldiers tried poisoning them, shooting them with their rifles and machine guns and even using grenades against them, but the large and powerful Russian wolves were so hungry, fresh wolf packs simply replaced those that were killed.
The situation grew so severe that the Russian and German soldiers convinced their commanders to allow temporary truce negotiations to enable them to deal with the animals more effectively. Once the terms were worked out, the fighting stopped and the two sides discussed how to resolve the situation. Finally, a coordinated effort was made and gradually the packs were rounded up. Hundreds of wolves were killed during the process while the rest scattered, leaving the area once and for all to the humans. The problem was solved, the truce was called off and the soldiers got back to killing each other properly.
Business As Usual
In 1902, Vickers, the British armaments firm, needed a timer fuse for their artillery shells. To be most effective against troops in the open or hunkered down in trenches, the shells needed to explode just above the enemy instead of exploding in the ground, which absorbed some of the impact and shrapnel. It just so happened that Krupp, the giant German armaments company, had one of the best timer fuses in the business. A deal was struck whereby Krupp licensed Vickers to produce the Krupp timer fuse at one shilling and threepence a fuse.
When war broke out in 1914, Vickers and Krupp, as well as other firms, were kept busy for the duration, arming and supplying their respective countries with everything needed to wage war. Business was good. But all good things must come to an end and, in 1918, the fighting stopped. While business dropped off for Vickers, Krupp was nearly ruined by the Versailles Treaty which practically demilitarized Germany.
In 1921, Vickers was sent a claim for £260,000 for the use of the Krupp fuse patent during the war. Krupp, desperate for cash, had estimated that, for every two artillery shells fired, one German soldier had died and, therefore, with 2,080,000 dead German soldiers, 4,160,000 Vickers' shells with the Krupp-patented fuse were fired. At one shilling and threepence apiece, that came to £260,000 Vickers owed them. Vickers contested the claim as far too large, although their record-keeping regarding the fuse had been haphazard during the giddy war years. Negotiations and arbitrations dragged on for years until, in 1926, Vickers made Krupp an offer. By their reckoning, only 640,000 artillery shells had been fired and therefore they owed only £40,000. By Krupp's calculations that meant that the average British shell had killed more than thee German soldiers, which was preposterous, but the economy in Germany was in tatters and paper money was useful only as fuel to keep warm. Vickers was offering to pay the settlement in 440,000 gold marks, a fortune in Germany. And, as they say, “losers can't be choosers”. Krupp took the money, which cynics said was payment for each German soldier killed. War may demand the ultimate sacrifice, but business is business.
During the war, roughly a million horses (including mules) were sent to France, mainly from Britain, Canada and the United States. Some of these were cavalry horses to be used when the great breakthrough occurred. Though there were cavalry charges, it was obvious even to most generals that cavalry had seen its day; machine guns, barbed wire and trenches saw to that. Still, even as late as 1916, during the battle of the Somme, the 7th Dragoon Guards, armed with lances, charged the German trenches on their noble steeds, pennants flying. Machine guns cut them down, man and beast, but even so, a few made it to the German lines, skewering the Hun on their lances, still under fire. The few survivors trickled back to the British lines.
Horses and mules performed many other tasks besides charging uselessly against the entrenched enemy. In fact, they were essential to the war effort, pulling wagons loaded with supplies or wounded soldiers, dragging artillery and generally providing muscle in the barren, often-times muddy moonscape of the front. They stood exposed to the elements for days on end. Sometimes fodder was in short supply. They were overloaded, their saddle sores often neglected. Like their human masters they were shot, shelled, gassed and bombed, but with a poor brute's incomprehension of the horrific world they inhabited. By the time the fighting was over, the Great War had killed nearly half a million horses and mules. Of the roughly half million that survived, only 62,000 returned. The rest ended up on French dinner tables.