Shirehampton Remount Depot, and Bristol's new memorial to the horses of WW1


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This is Shirehampton's War Horse Memorial sculpture - one of Bristol's newest public art installations, having been unveiled on Saturday 16th September, 2023. It stands in a green space known as the Daisy Field, part of the larger Lamplighters Marsh nature reserve.

The horse is made out of 380 used horseshoes, and was built by a former resident of Shirehampton called Jason Baggs. Fittingly, Mr Baggs is a farrier and blacksmith who turned his hand to sculpture, rather than a sculptor deciding to dabble with equine themes and materials.

The initial idea came from local resident, equestrian, and co-founder of the 'Friends of Lamplighters Marsh' community group, Diane Gait, who wanted to commemorate the Shirehampton Remount Depot. If you're thinking 'what on earth is a remount depot?', then I don't blame you, because I had the same reaction. Indeed, part of the reason to install a memorial was because so many people don't know about the existence of the remount depots at all, let alone that Shirehampton had one.

But fear not, because as someone who has since googled a bit and literally read the entire book...let about the Shirehampton Remount Depot, I shall proceed to badly paraphrase it to you all in a confidently knowledgeable tone of voice with some wobbly, barely relevant b-roll.

Remount is a military term meaning the supply of fresh horses, and can either refer to the horses themselves, or the whole logistical operation around supplying them: big facilities dedicated to hosting remount horses were known as remount depots, remount stations or simply remounts.

This might all sound a bit medieval and archaic in 2023 but Shirehampton's Remount Depot is only 20th century history. The First World War famously brought us tanks and so forth, and in doing so obsoleted traditional cavalry and ushered in the era of mechanised warfare, but the militaries were still hugely dependent on horses. In 1914, cars may have existed, but Jeeps didn't exist; Land Rovers didn't exist; self-propelled artillery didn't exist. If you wanted ambulances, artillery, wagons of food or ammunition, transporting around the very muddy battlefields, you needed horses and mules.

And you needed them in huge numbers. The British had lost 320,000 horses in the 2nd Boer War from 1899 to 1902, which had prompted the creation of the Horse Registration Scheme. This meant that within only twelve days of World War One breaking out, the government was able to draft 140,000 domestic and farm horses. An incredible number in such a short time, but nowhere near enough to sate the industrial-scale war machine.

A constant stream of fresh remounts was needed because the previous horses kept dying, en masse. I do think I have to be very blunt about this, so apologies if this upsets anyone, but you can't meaningfully commemorate war horses without facing up to the unvarnished horror of what they suffered. Horses were killed by gunfire, artillery and poison gas; they were killed by disease, in the squalid conditions of the front; they were killed by starvation, found desperately knawing on wooden wagon wheels due to the lack of fodder. Even getting to Britain was a pretty horrendous ordeal, with up to 1000 horses packed below decks of a single squalid ship: not pleasant even for those whose ships weren't sunk en route. Exact numbers are impossible, but a commonly cited figure is that between all the belligerent nations put together, about 8 million horses, mules and donkeys were killed.

So, the scale of the constantly ongoing British remount operation was vast. Horses were shipped in from empire and allied countries like Canada, Australia, the USA, Argentina, Spain, Ireland and New Zealand. During the course of the war the army imported about 870,000 horses, and Avonmouth was one of their major landing points.

Hence Shirehampton was an ideal location for a remount depot, as horses could be simply walked a mile or so from the docks to their stabling. Plus there was the train station for onward travel. It may have been the largest, and was certainly one of the largest. Nationwide, the army had a remount capacity of about 60,000 at any one time. Shirehampton officially stabled up to 5000 although in practice it peaked at 7,244 horses at any single point in time. Between 24th October 1914 and 25th November 1918, the Shirehampton remount processed 347,045 horses and mules.

The facility was therefore absolutely enormous. Overlaid on a modern map, here are the stable buildings, and here are the paddocks. The overall depot covered 114 acres (or 46 hectares) and also included dozens of other buildings that I'm afraid I didn't have the patience to draw - vets, dispensaries, blacksmiths, etc, not to mention accommodation, offices, canteens and so forth for the human staff.

This human staff was initially civilian, under army oversight, with the breaking and training of horses done by a volunteer paramilitary force by the somewhat fantastic name of 'Legion of Frontiersmen'. By February 1915 the army took the whole thing over, but there remained plenty of work for civilian vets, grooms, saddlers, blacksmiths, and so on, assuming they were ineligible for normal military service of course. Plus less horse-specific needs like plumbers and electricians, the latter being more notable than you might think as the Remount depot was somewhat advanced for its time in being electrically lit. The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps were brought in to do cooking, cleaning and clerical work (the era being what it was). Altogether there were roughly 1500 human staff.

Every day, 60 daily wagons of hay + sawdust came in, and 12 wagons of manure would go out - mostly to farmers. When Gloucestershire farmer Mr Bridgman won an award for his root vegetables the Western Daily Press credited it to his contract for several hundred tons of remount manure.

No trace of this vast operation remains for me to film today, there are hardly any surviving photographs, and I didn't particularly feel it worthwhile paying to licence the few images that do exist because they're really just fields and nondescript huts, there's nothing really that you can match up with the present day. Hence me fobbing you off with some generic footage of the suburban housing, mostly of an interwar vintage, which sprung up across most of the land the remount once covered. And some generic footage of Lamplighters Marsh.

That name, incidentally, comes from Lamplighters Hall, an 18th-century luxury riverfront country mansion built by a Bristolian businessman called Joseph Swetman who had made his fortune by winning the contracts to furnish several Bristol parishes with oil-lamp street lighting. It later became a hotel and is currently a pub by the name of He Amplight Rs. Um, sorry, the Lamplighters.

I have no connection with any of them, but I have to say a big well done to Diane Gait, Jason Baggs and all the Friends of Lamplighters Marsh, for having the idea, building it, and doing all the community fundraising, paperwork, planning permission and so on, to make it a reality. The remount depot, and the hundreds of thousands of horses and mules that it sent to their deaths, are well deserving of a memorial, and I may not know much about sculpture, but I do like this. The unveiling was picked up by BBC and ITV news as well as local publications - well deserved recognition for a wonderful community project.

If you want to come and see the horse for yourself it's all of 2 minutes walk from Shirehampton station, making it a painfully rare example of somewhere in Bristol that's fairly easily accessible from somewhere else in Bristol, if you don't have a car. Assuming of course that GWR actually manage to run any trains that day, which is not always a safe assumption.

Anyway that's all for this video. Cheers.