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Horses in the South African War, c. 1899-1902

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This essay discusses the role of horses in war through the lens of their mortality in the South African War (1899-1902). This conflict was the biggest and most modern of the numerous precolonial and colonial wars that raged across the southern African subcontinent in the late nineteenth century. Aside from the human cost, the theater of war carried a heavy environmental toll, with the scorched-earth policy shattering the rural economy. The environmental charge extended to animals. Both sides relied on mounted troops, and the casualties suffered by these animals were on a massive scale. This is widely regarded as proportionally the most devastating waste of horseflesh in military history up until that time. This paper looks at the material context of—and reasons for—equine casualties and discusses the cultural dimension of equine mortality and how combatants on both sides were affected by this intimate loss.

Affiliations: 1: University of Stellenbosch South Africa, Email:


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