The Long Riders' Guild

Horses in Submarines:

A Transportation Nightmare

by Raul Colon


 British submarine HMS E7


When we talk about the submarine in a war, we immediately focus on the German U-boat effort during the colossal Battle of the Atlantic or the massive Soviet attempt to achieve parity with the United States in the nuclear delivery strike platforms during the Cold War. There is even talk of Imperial Germany’s attempt to cut off and starve the British Isles during the Great War. But seldom, if ever, have historians given any notice to the fact that submarines were used as transportation platforms for the transferring of, not only troops and war related materials, but animals, mainly combat horses.

Yet such was the case, especially during World War I. It was a conflict permeated by the transition of war technologies. From observation balloons to combat airplanes, from a surface navy to an underwater fleet, and from horse mounted cavalry and infantry, to an all mechanized force centred about a new tool of war: the main battle tank. As all these changes were occurring, transporting and supplying an expeditionary force was still the domain of the horses in those early years of the war. Such was the case in the battle for the Dardanelles, most commonly known as the Battle of Gallipoli. There, the largest concentration of submarines, outside European waters, took place beginning in the spring of 1915.

The Dardanelles, a strait formation in what is today’s north-west Turkey, represented an opportunity for the then struggling Western Allies to inflict a major blow to Germany’s main ally in the Middle East: the Ottoman Empire. The British Admiralty knew that if the Turks could be dislocated from the Gallipoli peninsula, the Germans would have a hard time supplying their troops fighting the Russians on the Eastern Front. Thus the planning for the Gallipoli invasion commenced in earnest in the autumn of 1914. As soon as the plan was ready, the French jumped aboard enthusiastically. They saw the operation as a distraction affair, one that if it played out according to plan would divert German attention away from its incursion into northern France.

A map drawn in 1915 depicts the where the Ottoman and Allied forces fought on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

First Lord of the British Admiralty, Winston Churchill, is quoted beneath the map. “Here is being fought what Mr. Churchill has well called ‘the last and finest crusade.”

The Allies operation, which consisted of mounting an invasion on a far away strip of land occupied by a determined and well defended enemy, was a planning and logistical nightmare. The Dardanelles straits were well defended by the Turks. They recognized early on the importance of the peninsula to their own war effort and had made a conscious decision to fortify it. Naval guns were mounted on each approaching ridge. Heavy minefields were laid out near the strait’s gateway. Thousands of troops were available within a five mile radius. Even combat planes, a first for the tradition rich Ottomans, were dispatched to Gallipoli. How then would the vaunted Royal Navy and elements of the French Navy ship tons of supplies, thousand of combat troops and thousands of combat horses into the area without being detected by an already suspicious enemy?

The logical answer was the submarine!

A submarine could penetrate Gallipolis’s defences at night, unload its cargo and leave the area before the enemy knew it had been there, so the thinking went. In order to test the concept a series of small submarine incursions began in December 1914. They meet with unexpected success, paving the way for a large scale deployment of submarines in the area.

Boarding men and equipment into submarines of that era was a tall order. They were crude vessels fitted with just the basic systems needed to perform an assigned task. But the housing of a horse force inside those steel monsters was an almost impossible feat. Yet it was a feat that not only was accomplished but was repeated many times during the Gallipoli campaign.

The British selected their newly commissioned E class submarines. The E class boats represented a major leap in submarine design and development. It was bigger than the previous classes, the dreaded C and Ds, and could hold more cargo due to an expanded cargo hold in the aft section of the boat. The E class was destined to become the British main submarine platform during the four years of the struggle.

Blueprint and layout of British E Class Submarine. The submarine had a maximum surface speed of 16 knots (30 km/h; 18 mph) and a submerged speed of 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph). British E-class submarines had fuel capacities of 50 tonnes (55 short tons) of diesel and ranges of 3,255 miles (5,238 km; 2,829 nmi) when travelling at 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph).


Back in England, the British Imperial Army began a massive effort to recruit as many horses as possible for the impending Gallipoli expedition. But by this time, horses were a hot commodity. Purges of horses for deployment to northern France had left the once vigorous domestic horse breeding industry in a flat state. No major horses were available for operation in the straits. Scotland and Wales had also been purged of their horses in an attempt to fill the assigned quota. Fortunately for the British, there was the Commonwealth. Australia filled the requirement gap.  Between December 1914 and February 1915, 8,450 Australian horses were shipped to the British base at Dover. There the horses were rested prior to the fifteen day voyage to the Dardanelles straits.

Due to the smallness of the cargo hold, it was never intended that live stock or even humans could be placed in the hold for a medium to long range voyage. Because the horses needed space to eat and stretch, the Royal Navy decided to transport just one company of horses, (10) per trip. At this rate, it would take the entire E fleet twenty five trips in order to supply the estimated 250 horses needed to support one fully manned expeditionary combat brigade. It was a very tall order indeed. Nevertheless, the journeys began in earnest on March 21, 1915.

Built with compartmentalisation and endurance not previously achievable, the E class were the best submarines in the Royal Navy at the start of the First World War. It had a total length of 176 feet (54 m) and a beam length of 22 feet 8.5 inches (6.922 m). The E class served with the Royal Navy throughout World War I as the backbone of the submarine fleet. Its complement was thirty-one crew members. This image shows the interior of an E Class submarine.

The loading of the horses by itself was more difficult than shipping horses on commercial cargo ships. The chosen E boats were modified to use a loading ramp, instead of the regular loading hatch. The loading compartment was enclosed to avoid letting the horses have access to sensitive areas where cables and pipes were exposed. Provisions for the horses were stored in the front of the sub, in the area where torpedoes were normally placed. This deprived the boat of its full capacity of torpedoes. In fact, some E boats would carry only the torpedoes already placed in their firing tubes. This fact was not lost on the submariners. Some of them resented the gallant animal’s role and blamed the horses for the eventual loss of some of their shipmates.

Once onboard, the caring of the horses became an imposing proposition. Due to the lack of space, soldiers assigned to feeding and caring for the animals usually found themselves in precarious spots in the hold. The journey was a tenuous one for both crew and cargo. The E boats would depart the Dover area en route to the Mediterranean by way of Spain. That route was infested with German U-boats. When and if they survived the trip to the British base at Gibraltar, the subs would then make for the island fortress of Malta, where they would be re-fuelled and re-supplied before making the last leg of the trip.

On Malta, the horses where off boarded for stretching and exercise. A waiting team of veterinaries, shipped from the main British naval base at Scapa Flow three weeks before, was tasked with the evaluation of the horse’s condition as well as caring for any sick or injured animal. Many of the horses received thigh cuts due to the smallness of the cargo hold. They would collide with each other or just simply scrape against one of the exposed sharp edges of the welded hatches.

The horses stayed on Malta a matter of hours, not days. In those precious hours, the vets sometimes worked miracles. The veterinary service tried to prepare the horses the best they could. Sometimes the cuts on the animals were such that the horse was deemed unfit for combat, thus relegating it to pastoral duties. When the animal was fully recovered, it would be shipped aboard another E boat to the combat zone.

They needed all the exercise and preparing that the soldiers could give them. After just four days at sea, the horses would be asked to depart the discomforts of the submarines and land on the treacherous beaches of Gallipoli.

The journey from Malta to Gallipoli was relatively easy. No major U-boat concentration was expected and what ever naval force the Turks could muster, was utterly defeated.

The problem for the British E boats and its precious cargo, was not getting into Gallipoli, it was disembarking on a heavy defended peninsula. Once the sub arrived in the area, it would make for the upper left corner of the Dardanelles. There it would distribute its precious cargo to the gathering of soldiers in dire need of horses.

Having travelled for nearly sixteen days, the horses welcomed the respite of an open area, not knowing of course that this would probably be their last ride. Once on land, the British, Canadian and French troops already fighting the Turks would use the horses as transportation in the rugged Gallipoli terrain.

The British submarine HMS E8, which saw action during the First World War. The E class served with the Royal Navy throughout World War I as the backbone of the submarine fleet and saw action in the North Sea, the Baltic and Turkish operations.

Unfortunately for the allies and their animal comrades, the expedition was a complete military failure. The combined British and French force was unable to establish a sustained beach head on the peninsula. Furthermore, they were being pushed back towards the sea. By the end of the spring a complete evacuation of the Gallipoli beach head was ordered.

The Gallipoli Campaign was a disaster that cost Winston Churchill his post at the Admiralty. It would also seed the idea with the Germans that if the poorly trained Turks could out gun and out perform a professional British army in a remote location, then the Kaiser’s forces could destroy the Allied army in France.

For the horses onboard those submarines, the voyage itself proved deadly. Of the twenty-one E boat voyages that took horses to Gallipoli, three submarines were lost at sea. One went down near the Canaries Islands. The cause of its loss is still unknown. The other two went down near the strait itself. These were probably lost due to minefield engagements. All three boats went down with all hands, humans and horses.

Of the nearly 2,100 horses deployed to Gallipoli, only five hundred survived the affair. Even fewer made it back to England, and the ones that did return were then shipped to northern France where they would battle a more savage enemy, the dreaded trenches.

Today, we can see the valour of this animal entrenched on a monument atop of the A4 ridge in the Gallipoli peninsula. The monument, describes the valour of the invading soldiers and their four-legged comrades.

In 1934 Turkish President Kemal Atatürk, who had fought during the Gallipoli campaign, dedicated this memorial to the 113,350 soldiers who had fallen on both sides during the bitter conflict.



Submarines of the World, Robert Jackson, Friedman/FairFax Books 2003;

The First World War, New Strachan, Penguin Books 2003

Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War, Robert Massie 1991


The Long Riders’ Guild Academic Foundation would like to thank Raul Colon, an author who has documented aviation history, and Equestrian Magazine, who first published Mr. Colon’s article.

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