Mechanicalisation

David Fletcher MBE, former Tank Museum Historian, presents a series of exclusive articles written to expand on some of the subjects explored in the new 'Warhorse to Horsepower' exhibition.

20th December 2013

‘Mechanicalisation’, it was called at the time, meant the steady replacement of horse drawn transport by self-propelled vehicles, normally driven by a petrol engine and it affected civilian life as much as it did the military.
For instance, the last horse buses in London had been replaced by motor buses by the time of the First World War.

Civilian ‘mechanicalisation’ was driven primarily by economics but that hardly worried the military who in any case had other things to worry about. One was the cavalry, which was seen as the epitome of style in warfare. Another factor was the strong reactionary element in the Army, especially among the higher echelons who could not bear change of any sort, particularly if it was perceived as progressive, or modern. Even so some senior officers found that they preferred the comfort of a staff car to sitting on a horse while the Army’s supply services had come to appreciate the advantages of reliable motorised transport during the First World War.

(Right) A very extreme example of mechanisation, A Wolseley staff car designed to run on wheels or tracks. Two were built by Vickers Ltd and tested by the Army in 1926.

But the real problem for the British Army was the cavalry. Never mind that it had proven almost useless on the Western Front during the Great War it had still done reasonably well in the Middle East and many enthusiasts clung to that as a guide for the future. The Tank Corps, later the Royal Tank Corps, had been mechanised from the very start although during the war some officers preferred to control a group of tanks from the saddle but it was 1928 before the first two cavalry regiments, the 11th Hussars and 12th Lancers, exchanged their horses for armoured cars and it was not until the outbreak of the Second World War before the rest of them followed suit. Even so virtually all cavalry regiments had adopted mechanical transport, in the form of army lorries, long before. It was only in the front line where the idea of replacing the charger with a tank or armoured car was resisted for so long.

However as time went on most cavalry regiments came to realise that if they did not take the plunge they were likely to be left behind by the course of events. Even so the magazine PUNCH congratulated the Scots Greys upon resisting mechanisation for as long as they had. But once the Greys did make the change they became as fine an armoured regiment as any.

Another branch of the Army that remained faithful to the horse for many years was the Royal Artillery, which liked to have teams of matching horses to pull its guns. As time went on they found it increasingly difficult to obtain good horses since they were no longer being used in civilian life. Also there was a steadily growing mood amongst the public against the use of animals on the battlefield where they were exposed to powerful weapons that inflicted terrible wounds or even death. Thus, at least by the Second World War mechanical artillery tractors were in service at all levels.

By the time the British Army went to war again in 1939 it was almost totally mechanised and indeed became so a year or two later. This is in marked contrast to the German Army which retained a substantial horse-drawn element right through to the end of the Second World War.