Saturday, 6 August 2011

Sea Horses

Britain was the preeminant naval power of the Victorian age, not only guaranteeing her from invasion, but allowing domination of trade routes, and force projection almost anywhere on the globe. In theory, but in the 19th century, expeditionary forces meant cavalry, and horses are a lot pickier in their conditions than men. The Royal Navy was tasked with finding a solution.

HMS Himalaya was purchased from P&O as an emergency measure during the Crimean War to transport cavalry to the front. Originally designed as a passenger ship she was large (3,000 tons, the largest P&O ship at the time) and steam powered with a huge 18ft propeller, although she was also fully rigged. Despite being bought as a stopgap she was destined to remain on the books until 1920, carrying troops to India, South Africa and North America.

McClellan's Report

Fortunately, we have an eye witness of her use in the Crimea. Major General George McClellen (later one of the main American Civil War generals) toured Europe to assess the armies of the major powers with the aim of improving the army of the United States. Well, also probably checking out potential enemies, he had already carried out such a mission in Santo Domingo. Anyway, he seems to have enjoyed extraordinary access, not least as an observer in the Crimean war. Fortunately his report still survives and is freely available on the internet*. This is what he says about the Himalaya.

"The Himalaya was regarded as the most perfect horse-transport; the following description is based upon notes taken during a visit to that vessel in the harbor of Balaklava".

She "is commanded by Captain. Priest, R.N. To the courtesy of that very intelligent officer we are indebted for the details contained herein." The Himalaya "can carry 380 horses, as follows: on the spar-deck 200, main deck 130, orlopdeck 50; the corresponding number of troops can be carried at the same time."

"As a proof of the perfection of the system pursued on the Himalaya, it should be mentioned that Captain Priest had transported 3,000 animals while in command of her,—some of these direct from England to Balaklava. Out of this number but three (3) died."


The horses were housed in stalls, each held by a sea haltar ("so that it cannot interffere with it's neighbours"). "The material used is felt, or raw hide, (the latter objectionable on account of the odor,) stuffed with cow's hair wherever the animal can gnaw it, with straw in other parts; the pads were from 2" to 3" thick. The feed-trough is of wood, the edges bound with sheet iron or zinc, and attached to the head-board by two hooks. The feed-troughs, head-boards, and stalls are whitewashed and numbered."

"Whenever it is possible, a staging is erected alongside, that the horses may be walked on and off the ship." However, each horse had a sling, which "with the addition of a breast-strap and breeching, is used for hoisting the animals in and out." as well as in "cases of necessity; that is, when the animal shows signs of weakness in bad weather; in this case, about 1" play is 'given to the sling, as it is only intended to prevent the animal from falling."

Preparing horses for embarkation to the Crimea


"Not the slightest disagreeable odor could be detected on the Himalaya. The decks are washed everyday, and the stalls cleaned after every feed, —especially at 7 P.m. All wooden parts are washed with some disinfecting compound, or simply whitewashed. Chloride of zinc is freely used. The feed-troughs and the. nostrils of the horses are washed every morning and evening with vinegar."

"Great attention is paid to ventilation. Although the orlop-deck is so hot that the animals perspire a great deal, the animals carried there came off the voyage in better condition than the others. From the spar and main decks the stale passes off through the scuppers; from the orlop-deck it passes to the hold, and is pumped off by the engine."


"The usual hours for feeding are 6 A.m., 11 A.M., 5 P.M.; if any horse refuses his food, the fact is reported at once. The horses drink condensed steam. The regulation ration at sea is: 10 pounds of hay, 6 pounds of oats, a peck of bran, and 6 gallons of water,—as a maximum. It was thought that this was generally too great, and that two-thirds of this allowance, except the water, would be ample, as it is found that there is great danger from over-feeding at sea. No grain is given the day they come on board,—only a mash of bran, which, latter is regarded as the best habitual food at sea."

"The horse-guard always remain at their posts, and send for the farrier or non-commissioned officers in case of necessity."

The troopers

In contrast to the care taken with the horses, "in regard to the transportation of men, bunks and hammocks are generally used. Standing bunks are found to be very objectionable, on account of the difficulty of keeping them clean; hammocks are regarded as preferable for men in good health, while many officers consider it best to provide neither hammocks nor bunks, but to allow the men to lie down on the fore-decks with their blankets and overcoats."

McClellan on the Light Brigade

So it was in ships like this that the horses of the Light Brigade arrived in the Crimea. Incidentally, McClellan has this to say about the light cavalry - "It may be a question whether they have light cavalry, in the true sense of the term, except, perhaps, some of the regiments who have been serving in India and are mounted on Indian horses; for the men and horses of the light cavalry are scarcely to be distinguished from those of the heavy, and it may be doubted whether they would stand the severe work, exposure, and short rations which usually fall to the lot of light cavalry in campaign, as well as the less imposing but lighter and more active material of the light cavalry of other nations".


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