Lsst Field Artillery Horses

The mechanization of the U.S. Army in the period between the World Wars was a slow process, hampered by poor quality vehicles, budget constraints, and a reluctance to change from established animal-based doctrine. This was true for Field Artillery no less than Cavalry or others. But the clear superiority of motor vehicles for Field Artillery -- tractors and trucks as prime movers and for ammunition supply -- all but eliminated the horses by the start of World War II. Horses today remain only as a ceremonial remnant of their once dominant role in Field Artillery.

Horse mounted field artillerymen with M1897 75mm field gun, during WW I
Horse mounted field artillerymen with M1897 75mm field gun, during WW I.

See also:

  • The Last U.S. Military Pack Animals
  • The Last Cavalry Horses

Today in WW II: 24 Nov 1944 First B-29 Superfortress bombers originating from Tinian, in the Marianas, raid Tokyo, 1550 miles away.   

Mechanization of Field Artillery

A battery of the 10th Field Artillery, Ft. Lewis, WA.  Photo: Field Artillery Magazine, Sep-Oct 1929
A battery of the 10th Field Artillery, Ft. Lewis, WA. Photo: Field Artillery Magazine, Sep-Oct 1929.

World War I was the last war in which U.S. Army Field Artillery was primarily dependant on horses. At the beginning of WW I, as in all prior wars, a Field Artillery battery position included not only guns and gunners but also horses in harness along with limbers and caissons. When under fire, the position was quickly reduced to chaos. The increased range, accuracy and power of enemy fire led to increased use of indirect fire from artillery well behind the front lines. While this doctrine better protected the vulnerable horses and men and kept the batteries firing, the lack of mobility of the battery was a major problem due to the complexity of moving by horses and reestablishing positions and communications.

Boards of Evaluation after World War I recognized the tremendous potential of motor vehicles for field artillery, and uniformly recommended shifting from animal to motor transport. However, they stopped short of completely eliminating horse-drawn transport for light artillery. The latter was not due to affection for horses, but only on the unsuitability of the vehicles then available. The Army was unwilling to completely abandon horse-drawn transport. Under peacetime conditions, horse transport was about as effective as motorized transport and sticking with horses avoided major changes.

But the advantages of mechanization were clear, especially as prime movers for heavy artillery where one tractor could supplant large teams of horses. Therefore, despite lack of funds and other impediments, Field Artillery branch continued small scale experimentation with truck and tractor transport throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The great advantage of motors over horses was that motor vehicles would not be exhausted by long, arduous operations, an advantage that was less apparent under the conditions of peacetime training. Artillerymen continued to debate the relative merits of horse and motor well into the 1930s.

Major General Robert M. Danford, U.S. Army Chief of Field Artillery from 1938 to 1942, vehemently resisted giving up horse drawn artillery because he doubted the dependability and cross country mobility of mechanized systems and loathed to relinquish old traditions. As late as 1938, almost half of artillery in the regular Army was still horse-drawn. The 1940 edition of FM 6-20 (Tactical Employment of Field Artillery) still talked about limbers, caissons, veterinary aid stations, and other issues horse-drawn artillery.

The appearance of the jeep in 1940 eliminated the reservation concerning light artillery as the jeep could easily tow the 37mm Antitank Gun in all terrain. In 1940, the Army had only two horse-drawn artillery regiments left. By 1941, with the rapid expansion of the Army as WW II loomed, complete motorized transport for Field Artillery was fully accepted and the horses were retired.

The Last Field Artillery Horses

As horses were phased out of Field Artillery, one unit at a time, the traditional unit names changed to indicate the evolution. For example, 82nd Field Artillery (Horse) had two battalions of two batteries each. The batteries consisted of four horse-drawn, 75mm howitzer sections. In 1932, 82nd Field Artillery began using trucks as prime movers and dropped the (Horse) from unit designations as they converted. By 1939 the 82nd Field Artillery Battery D at Fort Bliss, TX, was the last horse drawn artillery in the U.S. Army. The last training for horse-drawn artillery was conducted at Camp McCoy WI in the summer of 1940. No field artillery horses served in World War II.

Fort Sill Half Section

The U.S. Army Field Artillery Half Section in the Wichita Mountains, southwestern Oklahoma
The U.S. Army Field Artillery Half Section in the Wichita Mountains, southwestern Oklahoma.

One U.S. Army horse-drawn artillery unit still exists for traditional and ceremonial purposes at Fort Sill, OK, the last of its kind. The U.S. Army Field Artillery Half Section is an authentic representation of a horse-drawn artillery section, as used during World War I. Original saddles and hardware were furnished by the Field Artillery Museum while the uniforms are replicas of those worn from 1918 to the 1930s.

A horse-drawn field artillery section had one six-horse team pulling a cannon and another six-horse team hitched to a ammunition carrier caisson. Fort Sill's unit is called a half section because it includes only the gun team. A Section Chief and Guidon Bearer ride in front.

Formed in 1963, the Half Section didn't become a permanent fixture at Fort Sill until 1970, the year after the post's centennial celebration. The horses are selected with the guidance of old photographs and 75-year-old specifications depicting the ideal artillery mount. Riley, the last of the original Half Section horses, was retired in May 1990.

The Half Section's gun limber is of the type used by the Army through the 1930s. The M1897 75mm field gun was the standard light field artillery piece for U.S. and French forces in World War I. It was used until the last horse-drawn artillery unit was replaced by motorized units in 1941.

Every year, thousands of spectators view the Half Section's ceremonies at Ft. Sill, throughout Oklahoma, and in nearby states.