The Straw Ride

Painter Lucy Kemp-Welch was commissioned, in 1918, to record the remarkable contribution of civilian horsewomen to the war effort. The Straw Ride reminds us that this was the era of ‘First Wave’ women’s suffrage and evokes the spirit of ‘warrior-women’.

During World War One, horses were prepared for the next leg of their journey to the battlefields of France, the Balkans, the Middle East, Egypt, or Italy at ‘remount depots’ around England. These depots also provided vet care and rehabilitation for horses coming back from the Front, where injuries, mustard-gas poisoning, skin and other contagious diseases reduced the supply of horses.

The English public weren’t much aware of the input of the remount centres to the war effort, or of the remarkable contribution of civilian horsewomen, so in 1918, around the height of hostilities, the Women’s Work Section of the Imperial War Museum commissioned well-known English horse painter Lucy Kemp-Welch to record daily life at Russley Park in Wiltshire, a remount centre staffed entirely by women.

Russley Park Remount Centre played a vital role in supplying horses for the front, but it was unusual in that “it was used for the rehabilitation of officers’ horses, around a hundred of them. The horses here would have been very fine animals indeed.”  The press of the day were fascinated by the notion of ‘little’ girls riding [and often retraining] chargers intended for cavalry officers at the Front.

There were numerous articles in The Times and one in particular in December 1915 described the whole program, including the girls’ backgrounds, [“Some of the ladies have been brought up on Australian and Canadian horse ranches, but most of them are hunting women.”] Not all were from the same social class as the fictional Lady Mary Crawley, of ‘Downton Abbey’ fame but none were ‘town girls’, as the work was too hard and too dangerous for any but very experienced riders.

The Times article covered the girls’ work and daily routine. This involved twelve hour days of mucking out, grooming and feeding, riding out in a string, afternoon special training sessions and vet treatments, more mucking out, tack cleaning, dinner, and bed at 9pm! The inspectors of remounts who periodically visited the depot said of Russley Park that “they have never known horses to be so well attended to by men.”

The three women riders here are shown in shirt-sleeves and headscarves and sadly, not a helmet to be seen! They’re exercising horses on an ingenious ‘straw ride’. A ‘straw-ride’ was a circular construction around the outside of a stable block, with a veranda style-roof, and the ground was surfaced with straw from the stables.

It was like a kind of small, indoor riding track, where horses could trot, canter and gallop around clockwise, and anti-clockwise, and they were popular in racing and hunting stables as they allowed the horses to be exercised daily in the worst Winter weather.

Each woman rides one horse and leads another, and Kemp-Welch shows their calm mastery of pairs of excited horses.  The women’s work was noticed in the local area, and their appearance around the village, in jodhpurs and riding ‘cross-saddle’ caused comment, but ultimately, these gifted riders made riding astride more socially acceptable after the war.

Here Kemp-Welch’s compositional focus is on the beautiful curves of the horses’ necks captured in silhouette, as they are ‘broken’ by the vertical shapes of the girls’ torsos, that function like staves on a musical score; the rhythm of cantering legs in high collection and the sense of surging forward motion is wonderfully displayed.

Her careful flattening of pictorial space forcefully evokes sculptor Pheidias’ marble frieze series for the Parthenon showing Athenian cavalry riders, which she would have known from the British Museum.

Through her referencing of the Athenian cavalry from the friezes of Parthenon, Kemp-Welch calls to mind, not only the Greeks but their most feared foes, the terrifying ‘Amazons’; the female warriors who were more than the equal of male warriors. 

She thus reminds us that this was the era of ‘First Wave’ women’s suffrage. British women over thirty and owning property had just got the vote the year before this picture was painted, in 1918.

By evoking ‘warrior-women’ Kemp-Welch here evokes the feminist spirit of the Greek’s greatest foes; and it’s also no coincidence that ‘Amazon’ was also a popular term around Europe in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century for women equestrians.

The all-woman staff at Russley Park did important work which was critical to Britain’s war effort. Most of us are aware of the appalling cost to human life in the so-called ‘Great’ War. In terms of equine mortality, despite vastly improved vet care and management, this still added up over the course of the War to an appalling eight million equine deaths.

World War One was the last ‘horse war’ and while we might decry the horrific mechanisation [and now digitisation] of war and killing, the fact that we no longer use horses ‘as tanks’ is one thing to celebrate. Personally, what intrigues me is how these women felt about their job of releasing their equine charges back into the ‘killing fields’ of France?

To have spoken openly about this at the time would have been bad for morale, traitorous even, and hardly comparable to what direct combatants went through, but still, this aspect of the job would have been hard and painful. Notwithstanding, by highlighting their courage in extraordinary times, Kemp-Welch brings us into a new and exciting twentieth century visual repertoire of horses in art, that featured the expert female cross-saddle rider.

Reference:

Graham Winton, Theirs Not to Reason Why:Horsing The British Army 1875-1925, Helion, 2013.

Image Captions:

Image 1 Lucy Kemp Welsh, The Straw Ride Russley Park Remount Dep’t, Wiltshire, 1919 IWM London. Image source: www.wikimedia.org.

Image 2: Pheidias, Cavalry from the Parthenon Frieze, West II, 2–3, British Museum. c. 443 and 437 BC. Image source: www.wikimedia.org.