The logistics of transporting thousands of horses overseas proved something of a nightmare for Army officialdom, although in the end, very few animals perished on board ship.
Of the 28 vessels that sailed in the first A.I.F. contingent, all but two carried horses, HMAT Hymettus the most with 686, along with five officers and 106 men. Of those that did not carry horses, one, A28 HMAT Miltiades sailed directly to England carrying 600 Melbourne, Sydney and Imperial Reservists who were part of the British Army an the first Australians to serve in the conflict.
Soldiers were banned from writing letters while on board - obviously there were no facilities for posting letters anyway (although a few reports emerged of letters sealed in bottles being washed up along the Western Australian coast line), but after arrival in Egypt, it was a different matter.
The following is a letter published in the Northcote Leader on May 15, 1915. The letter carried no signature and was noted as simply from "a member of the A.I.F." and whether it was specifically written for the Leader or reproduced from another source is not clear.
"The transport by sea of thousands of horses - the capital value of which is about £200,000 - from one side of the world to the other presents a problem the answer to which is X - an unknown quantity - as it has never hitherto been worked out.
Take for instance a transport of the Australian Imperial Forces carrying three hundred horses, which is a moderate number as things go, for some ships have five and sometimes even seven thousand. There are horses everywhere. There are horses on deck, the stalls occupying all the available space, and there are those under the decks, or in nautical terms, ‘tween decks ... the horses occupy every nook and cranny or wherever it is possible or apparently impossible for an animal to be put.
... it seems impossible that horses could survive under such conditions for the seven or eight weeks of the voyage. Every horse is placed in a stall exactly two feet and five inches wide, and separated from its neighbour on either side by two narrow slip top and bottom rails. The animals can never lie down during the voyage - this is his home all the time he is on board and when it is remembered that very few of these creatures have even seen a stable of any kind because they are station ‘born and bred’, one can only look aghast at the size of the exercise ...
The horses are watered four times a day any fed three times. Feeding time is always announced by a trumpet call and the animals soon get to know the call and announce their readiness by loud stamping, whinnying and stretching their heads out of their stalls … grooming at sea differs entirely from the methods employed on land. Their skins are tender and curry-combs and brushes are therefore taboo, a wet cloth in hot weather and a dry one in cold being all that is needed to keep them clean and to remove their winter coat. In hot weather the salt water hose plays an important part.
Then comes the important question of exercise and once more the difficulties from having to remove every horse from his stall to give it a ten minute walk are exceedingly great, but it must be done somehow. Cocoanut matting is laid down on the deck to prevent slipping and on this they are led ...
"Stables, stables, stables, bally well stables,
From reveille to lights out, it's stables all the time,
Stables, stables, stables, bally well stables,
When we're dead and in our graves, we'll hear that call no more"