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Posted June 28, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Patrick Farris: Depot trained animals for WWI

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of columns about the Front Royal Remount Depot.

By Patrick Farris

Although a footnote in American military history, the Pancho Villa Expedition was the baptism of fire - small as it was - for the Front Royal Remount Depot. The base's men and horses had been sent out to active duty in a combat zone for the first time.

This trial run could not have come at a more appropriate time, as the nation's military was on the verge of another much larger challenge that would require it to muster all its available resources - entry into World War I.

After the Mexican Border Expedition - or Pancho Villa Expedition, as it became known - the Remount facility kicked its production of trained animals into high gear when the United States formally entered the great war in September of 1917.

German targeting of American ships in the North Atlantic was a main factor in bringing this nation into the war, but until President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war, the U.S. military was not asked to respond in volume with men and materials. As soon as the nation was at war, the Front Royal Remount Depot, like all other Army bases, was alive with activity, shipping out horses and mules to the port at Norfolk for transport "over there" for service with cavalry and artillery units.

The First World War occurred at an interesting moment in history when automotive mechanization had not become complete, and so draft animals and mounts served alongside trucks and trains at the front line. Future President Harry S. Truman, an officer in an artillery unit, would ride a horse into battle as did other officers.

World War I's no-famous American Gen. John J. Pershing put his two favorite mounts out to pasture at the U.S. Army Remount Depot in Front Royal after the war. Jeff and Kidron lived out their lives in equine luxury at the Remount, and were buried at the facility. The horses were gifts to Pershing from France in gratitude for his service to that nation during the war. World War I was the last large scale conflict in which modern armies would rely so heavily on horses and mules, but Remount would come alive again for the second World War, nonetheless.

In 1919, the boys came marching home, a grand parade being held that year in Front Royal in honor of Warren County soldiers, sailors and airmen. The only local excitement during the brief war years was an unsuccessful plot to poison the horses and mules being trained at the Remount before they could deploy. The plotters were discovered and their plans foiled as a result.

For the next two decades, the Front Royal Remount Depot trained and drilled animals and their handlers for service in the Army, while simultaneously the U.S. military and most other industrialized nations busied themselves with mechanization.

Most cavalry units - with a few notable exceptions - were disbanded or absorbed into larger infantry units. Those remaining in existence acted as infantry units and no longer used horses. Artillery units and supply and support units became mechanized as well, so that by the second World War animals would be relatively uncommon on the battlefield.

World War II was not devoid of animal participation in the militaries of the world, however, the United States included, and the Front Royal Remount stepped up to supply mules and horses for a variety of duties.

The famous Burma Road, which stretched over Southeast Asia from India to China allowing the Allies access to attack the Japanese, was constructed with the help of mules trained at and brought to duty from the Front Royal Depot. In addition, horses and ponies were trained at the depot for service patrolling the coastline of much of the Southeastern United States.

Although today many of us have been to the beaches of Virginia and the Carolinas, driving over bridges and arriving at hotels and beach houses on asphalt-topped roads, in the 1940s most of the South's coast was inaccessible or difficult to access even for locals. As a result, horse- or pony-mounted patrols were required to keep watch over the Atlantic for U-boat sightings and to report friendly vessels in trouble or under attack.

During the first two years of World War II, the German navy sank thousands of tons of ships so close off the U.S. coast that the attacks could be watched from the shore, so these mounted patrols were crucial.

Read more about the depot in next Saturday's column.

Interested in local history? Come visit the Warren Heritage Society in Front Royal. Refer to warrenheritagesociety.org for contact information, hours and location. Patrick Farris is executive director of the Warren Heritage Society. - See more at: http://www.nvdaily.com/columns/

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