It’s unlikely that artist Alfred Munnings grasped the full significance his work would come to take on after Lord Beaverbrook invited him to paint Canadian military forces in France in 1918.
It was, after all, the swan song of the war horse as it had been known for centuries and Munnings, who specialized in equine and landscape art would, over the course of the war’s final months, create a priceless record of the cavalry’s last days serving in a widely integrated role on the battlefield.
His moody, exquisitely subtle paintings also provide a rare glimpse into the workings of the Canadian Forestry Corps, which supplied the lumber for trench works, railways and other critical wartime infrastructure.In its latest exhibition, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa—home to the 14,000-piece Beaverbrook Collection of War Art—celebrates the work of the British-born painter whose subject matter would move from the fox hunts and refined equestrian ladies of his native England to the mud- and sweat-soaked workhorses and cavalry chargers of the Western Front. “The subject chose him,” said exhibition historian Teresa Iacobelli. “He was asked specifically to paint the Canadian Cavalry Brigade first by Lord Beaverbrook and the Canadian War Memorials Fund. He had a reputation prior to the war of painting scenes like this.
“He went to France in January 1918 [to paint the cavalry] and then, immediately after painting the cavalry brigade, he was asked specifically by the forestry corps itself to come and paint them.”
Fresh off a three-year tour, Munnings—War Artist, 1918, developed with the Munnings Art Museum in England, features 43 paintings and three sketches primarily documenting the forestry corps and the cavalry, along with some portraits and landscapes.
The Canadian Expeditionary Force used 24,134 horses and mules over the course of the war in France and Belgium.
There is only one picture of an actual battle in the exhibition, and Munnings wasn’t even there to see the action before he painted it: Lieutenant Gordon M. Flowerdew’s legendary charge on German machine-gun positions at Moreuil Wood on March 30, 1918. Nearly three-quarters of the Canadian troopers were killed or wounded in the attack, including Flowerdew of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), who was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross.It was one of the last great cavalry charges not only of the war, but in history.
The machine gun, armoured tanks, mechanized infantry and the nature of trench warfare itself had already rendered cavalry units all but obsolete. After playing an essential role against the German spring offensives of 1918, mounted units such as the Strathconas and the Fort Garry Horse would gradually transition to mechanized armour.
For much of the Great War, the horse was relegated to the drudgery and indignity of heavy work, hauling supply wagons, ambulances, lumber, artillery pieces and more. Cavalry units mainly relied on their animals to get from place to place.
“They’re often fighting as mounted infantry, using the horses to move rapidly from crisis to crisis rather than fighting in this older version of cavalry charges,” said Iacobelli.
The Canadian Expeditionary Force used 24,134 horses and mules during the course of the war in France and Belgium. The British Army alone employed 1.2 million. It had just 25,000 at its disposal in 1914; it bought another 115,000 under the compulsory Horse Mobilisation Scheme, depicted early in the movie War Horse.
From 1914 on, 500 to 1,000 horses were shipped to Europe each day; 130,000 of them came from Canada. The British Army spent roughly the equivalent of $5 billion in today’s currency on buying, training and delivering horses and mules.
The animals suffered terribly—mutilated by artillery fire, plagued by skin disorders and blinded and burned by poison gas.
Whole industries were dedicated to feeding, doctoring and maintaining the animals. By 1917, Britain had more than 368,000 horses employed on the Western Front—still not enough, apparently, as some troops were told that the loss of a horse was of greater tactical concern than that of a soldier. Even the U.S. army was in dire need of horses just months after joining the fight.
Nevertheless, the troops loved the horses who often boosted front-line morale. But their waste and carcasses also contributed to poor sanitation and the spread of disease.
The animals suffered terribly—mutilated by artillery fire, plagued by skin disorders and blinded and burned by poison gas. Procuring fodder was a major challenge and Germany, enduring blockade shortages, lost many horses to starvation.
The losses were staggering. Some 7,000 horses were killed on a single day by long-range shelling during the 1916 Battle of Verdun.By war’s end, 2.5 million steeds had been treated by war veterinarians and eight million had died, three-quarters of them from extreme conditions. The heavy-hauling Clydesdales suffered the most. It took six to 12 just to pull a single field gun through the notorious mud.
Horses were still used in the Second World War, mainly on the Eastern Front. Germany and the Soviet Union employed more than six million between 1939 and 1945. Cavalry still existed, but to a far more limited degree than before.
There is no glory here, as in 18th- and 19th-century war paintings, instead, more melancholy, perhaps.
Lord Beaverbrook—or Maple, Ont., -born newspaper magnate Max Aitken (Also see O Canada: Greatest Canadians here)—was the brains behind the Canadian War Memorials Fund, a program to chronicle the war in film, photography and print. The fund commissioned some 900 paintings, photographs, drawings and films by 116 artists, a third of them Canadian.
Except for the destruction and desolation of their locales, Munnings’ paintings reflect more the sombre dignity of the animals than the hardships and brutality they faced. The pieces’ impact is more a product of the artist’s masterful use of light and subdued colour to convey mood and a sense of place. There is no glory here, as in 18th- and 19th-century war paintings, instead, more melancholy, perhaps.
More than 40 of Munnings’ paintings were among 355 works by Beaverbrook’s war artists exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London after the war. Most were in simple wooden frames. Munnings, however, paid to have his mounted in gilded frames. Combined with the dark, earthy tones prevalent through most of his work—browns, greens, muted yellows—the effect of the gold border is dramatic.
“I have often wondered,” he would say later in life, “had there been no 1914-1918 war, whether painting people on horseback would have absorbed the greater part of my efforts in the years that followed.”
Supported by The Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation, the exhibition has appeared at the National Army Museum in London, the Munnings Art Museum in Dedham, U.K., the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton and Villa Bagatelle in Québec.
Munnings—War Artist, 1918 is at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa through March 19, 2023.
The War Horse Memorial in Ascot, England, is the first national memorial dedicated to the millions of United Kingdom, Commonwealth and Allied horses, mules and donkeys lost in the Great War. “It pays tribute to the nobility, courage, unyielding loyalty and immeasurable contribution these animals played in giving us the freedom of democracy we all enjoy today, and signifies the last time the horse would be used on a mass scale in modern warfare,” says the memorial’s website.