Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Horses, donkeys and mules: The "forgotten heroes" of the Greek army and their contribution to the great battles By Amalia Sotirhou

"In a ditch, covered with snow, Psaris (the name of the mule) got stuck. Hungry, soaked to the bone, battered by the relentless running and climbing, he was doomed to be left there. I caressed his neck and kissed him. Then I moved on. Just after a few steps I turned to see him for the last time. Maybe it was an animal, but it was a companion in war. Together, we had witnessed death so many times, spent days and nights never to be forgotten in a lifetime. I saw him staring at me as I was leaving. Oh that look in his eyes... So much sorrow revealed. I started crying. But war leaves no time for such weakness. For a moment I thought I should put an end to his life but my heart would not let met. I left him there. He kept looking at me up until the moment I disappeared in the mountain…"

The soldiers’ testimony in the Greek-Italian in 1940, is depicted in a tribute to the Greek Army equines written by the Director of the Third Veterinary Hospital and General Chief veterinary surgeon, Colonel Konstantinos Terpsidis. They are righteously named the “Neglected heroes”. This tribute, is perhaps the most irrefutable evidence of the valuable contribution of horses, mules and donkeys in wartimes of the Greek Army.

Colonel Konstantinos Terpsidis continues in his book by stating that, "the history of equines (horses, mules, donkeys) is closely linked to the history of man since, with them man crossed vast plains, crossed rugged and inaccessible mountains and found a suitable place to settle. In all military conflicts of our nation, the equines were a key element of our military machine, with the cavalry as a fighter weapon characterized by speed and agility and mules as troops. They fell by the thousands and they glorified the Greek Army on the holy battlefields.

From ancient times the way equines were in battle was a relevant factor to the outcome of the battle. The military use of the horse, tied to a chariot was a sample of social superiority, while the cavalry in Greece developed under specific territorial and socioeconomic conditions, particularly in the regions of Thessaly, Macedonia and cities of Asia Minor.

The equines, for many years, were the driving force of the Greek Army and there was a whole mechanism looking after their nutrition, farriery, harnesses, saddles, reins, stirrups even the cloak and blankets for the transport of weapons, cannons and ammunition.
The involvement of equines in battles of the Greek nation are recorded and are impressive: in the Greek-Turkish war (1821) 2.900 equines, in the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), 29,000; in World War II 47.169; in the Crimean War (1919) 10.132; in the Asia Minor War (1919-1922) 62.000;  in the Greek-Italian War (1940) 150.000.

For countries such as Greece, with mountainous terrain and lack of motorised military vehicles, equines were a key element of all military conflicts of the 20th century.
A sufficient number of equines, their physical condition and their ability to fight in the battlefield were all decisive factors as to whether the Greek army presented combat effectiveness and readiness.

The total number of equines in World War II amounted to 150,000, of which 120,000 were in units of Epirus and Western Macedonia, as Colonel Terpsidis notes in his tribute. "The inability to protect the equines from the fierce cold resulted in the death of thousands. It is worth noting that during the first two months of the war, the loss of the Cavalry Division in equines exceeded 50%."

The period between1955-1990 is characterized by the gradual motorisation of Army Units. We therefore have a constant phasing out of the equines in the Greek Army resulting in a mere presence of 1.300 equines in 1969.

The years passed and the last equines were sold in 1990, after 157 years of presence in the Greek Army. The link, however, between the soldier on the battlefield and the faithful four-legged companion was unique, and is clearly depicted in the following handwritten note left  by a soldier of  World War II on the saddle of a mule: "You fought beside us strong in the wildness of the war showers war and fell silently fighting for our freedom, an invisible and eternal hero. Your memory will last for eternity. "

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