So Much for Luck

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So Much for Luck


Piper took me off the beaten path again in a dog-walk last week. She snuffled and dug away at a soil bank, churned and trodden in the winter wet but now solid and pitted with footprints of all kinds. I prised out an accidental replica of a horseshoe, nearly complete and cast in dried mud. It took me back to a conversation in the pub, back in the worst of that winter weather.

I noticed him sitting alone at the corner table as I waited at the bar. I'd seen him here before, and even surreptitiously listened to his talk of smithing. Metalworking has held a lifelong fascination for me. He wasn't the local blacksmith, who I knew well enough, but his muscular arms with their cuts and segs, the foundry-style boots he wore and indeed his whole bearing all served to confirm an authentic affinity with hot metal. The very way he'd rolled his sleeves announced a man who got on with things.

He welcomed me to sit with him like the storyteller I already knew him to be. What he told me is still turning over in my mind, months later. I cannot tell where fact ends and speculation begins, nor where plausibility shades into fantasy. Browsing the internet brings little clarification: the subject seems to dwell in a peculiar borderland between practicality and myth. (This could never be an Edited Guide Entry, because I have no means of telling which parts of it are actually true).

There is some truth here, though. He gave some credulity-taunting statistics which cursory research nonetheless appears to be confirm. During the Great War, the British Army requisitioned some nine hundred thousand horses, and easily more than a million if you count all equine animals. They started the conflict with about twenty-five thousand horses and finished it with nearly thirty times that number.

The conversation took this turn because I had asked him whether he counted himself a farrier. He didn't. A farrier, he reminded me, needs veterinary skills as much as smithing ones. And then he began to talk about the blacksmith at war, but not the medieval armourers that I knew something of already, through tantalising glimpses in my favourite museums. He talked instead about the last war that ever needed blacksmiths in the field, the Great War of 1914-18, the War to End All Wars.

'You know the story of the horseshoe nail?' he asked. At first I thought it was a rhetorical question. By the time he had emptied his last glass and taken his leave, I was wondering whether the fate of the entire world might truly have turned on such logistics. A story I thought I'd already framed, if mainly through my trivial encounters with Murporgo's Joey, had just grown immense and intractable. Nearly a million horses, working hard under adverse ground conditions for an average of, say, three years each. Their shoes last around six weeks tops; let's be conservative and say eight sets a year each. Four corners to the animal, of course. That's going to be around a hundred million horseshoes, just to prosecute one side's war.

A competent farrier, apparently, can shoe a maximum of around six horses a day. Any more than that is false economy: quality will deteriorate and re-shoeing will just become necessary sooner. Let's assume that all our farriers remain healthy and work flat out for the duration of the conflict, and can always be found exactly where they're needed. Each one of them will then fit a little over thirty thousand of the hundred million shoes. So now we will have to recruit some three thousand farriers in order to wage our war. Except that we can probably double that number, given all the factors that will conspire to disrupt our efficiency.

What are all these horses doing anyway? A substantial majority are pack animals and most of the rest are for draught. The difference, I'm reminded, is that packhorses carry things on their backs and draughthorses pull things on wheels. Only a few horses actually see direct action, and fewer still carry men into battle. The days of the cavalryman are already effectively over, and officer's steeds are predominantly their personal property. The effective rule is that those who bring their own bloodstock will be allowed to ride, but the powers-that-be see no value in providing mounts for anyone else.

The perceived value of pack- and draught-animals differs too. Horses powerful enough to pull a heavy load are still vital to the nation in other roles, notably in agriculture but also significantly in the mines. They are accordingly requisitioned sparingly, whereas candidate pack animals are procured with vigour. This all means, too, that volunteering farriers cannot be accepted unconditionally. There are different ways to lose a war, and precipitating food or fuel shortages back home would be among the more incompetent methods.

Another bout of arithmetic threatens to stall the conversation, and so I ask my companion to just tell me the numbers. Do we have enough farriers to cover both the domestic and the military requirement? The answer is no. There is a shortfall of at least a couple of thousand. So how long does it take to train a farrier? He surmised that it would take six months. I've discovered since that a modern apprenticeship takes two years, persuading me that his figure is a plausible minimum. I was surprised that he considered the equine husbandry, and particularly the ability to trim a hoof, to be the rarer craft. Fitting and fettling skills were widely assimilated in those days, he pointed out. What about actually making the shoes, I asked? Surely the general populace didn't have the opportunity to practice that?

He brightened conspicuously at that question, with a smile that was almost conspiratorial. How they made all those shoes was indeed the most interesting question here. Could they have manufactured them away from the field and shipped them in bulk? If they made them in the field instead, what kind of portable forge did they use? Could they fit the shoes hot? Could they customise them?

I pointed out that he was going too fast. I would need to know more about the practice of shoeing horses before I could assimilate all of this. He set out on patient explanation. Apparently horseshoes are not only sized, but ideally they are also matched to position (right and left as well as fore and hind) and to the shape of the hoof. The size range is prodigious, and the pub setting provided the imagery to illustrate this. I certainly did remember the large ashtrays that once populated every bartop: the shoes of a heavy shire horse are about that size. Pony shoes, at the other extreme, can be as small as beermats. Hindhooves are meanwhile wider in both the buttress and the capsule (whatever they are) than forehooves, and the outside of a hoof is more curved than the inner, with the result that all four of a given horse's hooves are unique in shape. If all of this is taken into account, you either have to carry a huge inventory into a warzone or else you need an ability to manufacture, or at the very least to modify, shoes in the field.

Applying the shoes hot is not just a matter of improved productivity through the avoidance of cooling delays. The residual formability of still-hot metal allows a measure of tailoring to fit. Without the ability to heat the shoe, though, no more than slight adjustment is possible and even that, achieved by means of a file, is arduous and slow.

Blacksmiths have accompanied armies since ancient times, and portable forges preceded the First World War by at least two centuries. In the case of the British Army, the Government had first commissioned the design and manufacture of a farrier's forge as early as the Crimean War. The principal Great War variant incorporated a hand-cranked fan that fitted to a hearth-tray with telescopic legs and a hinged lid. Anvils and tools were generally similar to those used in permanent smithies. All this equipment was heavy of course, leading to the somewhat recursive necessity that draughthorses were deployed in moving it. After food for the troops and munitions, equine resources might have represented the next largest quantity of material movements. Once again I persuaded him to spare me the arithmetic, but he reckoned that as many as one horse in ten would have been effectively fully occupied in shifting the requirements of other horses. Nor should we forget that there was a different kind of smithing needed too, with the re-tyring of wheels a particular requirement, but with the general repair of vehicles and weaponry an essential capability. The farriers were only one example of a wide range of skilled tradesmen who took an active part in the war effort.

But did the army also carry copious quantities of steel bar, from which to make all those horseshoes close to their point of use? My companion thought otherwise: there would have been some field manufacture but the great majority of the shoes were made to stock, mostly in Britain but significantly also in France. He described moulds and patterns issued to forge operators throughout the home nations, who then supplied standard orders throughout the War. The whole process was overseen by a special War Office department called the Army Remount Service. This manufacturing supervision was an ancillary activity to their main role, that of procuring the animals themselves and then directing the shipment of everything that went with them. The ARS actually endured until 1942, but the Great War was to be its last major undertaking. They appear not to have organised the training of farriers though. How that deficit was managed is presently unknown.

Did the Germans encounter similar problems, I wondered? Apparently they did. They were fighting their side of the war in much the same way, after all. Which side administered their equine resources better then, and did their relative performance have a significant effect on the outcome? His answer to that question astonished me. It was not so much their relative performance as their mutual experience of grave difficulties that shaped the war. The main reason that the conflict became sloughed down on a narrow front in Flanders was that none of the combatants were prepared to contemplate the challenge of reconfiguring their logistics. Once the supply lines were established, preserving them became sacrosanct and opening up another front, even if it offered a chance to break the terrible stalemate of the Trenches, was too risky to bear thinking about. The protagonists' reliance on horses was, my companion insisted, a major factor in the petrification of strategic thinking and was thus a direct cause of the most disastrous and pitiful impasse in human history.

While I was pondering that, he offered the opinion that the mechanised variant of war that soon went on to replace this literally horse-powered version was no improvement, only different. He added that he used to find consolation in a belief that, once machines were on the scene, the skills of metalworkers would thereafter keep them further from the front line. Now, though, he had concluded that the true nature of modern war just means that everyone is on the front line. With that he drained his glass and left. At first I'd found him such stimulating company. Now, I realised, I was quite relieved that he'd gone.

At what point does an interest in a subject flip over into a debilitating obsession? I'm feeling less sure this week than last that metalworking is a veritable pillar of civilisation. Perhaps from now, all this circumspection will come flooding back whenever I pick up a hammer. And as for horses, so loved by the womenfolk of my family, well...I'm not exactly scared of them, but I've always suspected them of a certain aloofness, perhaps even of resentment. After this, I don't suppose that those feelings will be changing any time soon.

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