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Men of the Oxford district, including Birch Hill, in North Canterbury – 186 in total – served in World War 1 in Egypt, France and Palestine, and this contingent included men from Birch Hill Station. One of them, M. Pavelka, was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. When war was first declared, many men rode in on their own horses to enlist and Birch Hill also supplied a good many horses to the war effort.
Between 1914 and 1916 the New Zealand government acquired more than 10,000 horses to equip the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to serve King and Country. They served where most New Zealanders served: in German Samoa, at Gallipoli, in the Middle East and on the Western Front.
Many horses died from disease or injury once overseas. Of those that survived the war, only four returned home - Bess, Beauty, Nigger and Dolly.
Momument at Birch Hill
At Birch Hill Station there is a cemetery where there is a large curved stone monument officially opened in 1937 by Lt Colonel Edward Bowler Milton. There are two plaques the first reads “In Memory of the Horses of the 8th Regiment N.Z.M.R. that died in the Great War 1914 – 1918. The other plaque is dedicated to the 10 men who served from Birch Hill Station.
The Memorial Service at Birch Hill Station Cemetery is open to the public and is well worth a visit as part of New Zealand's proud history.
What became the horses that did not return home?
The great majority were duly sold to work in the streets of the cities in Egypt, in remote market villages and worst of all in the stone quarries. However this haunted one woman, Dorothy Brooke.
16 years later her husband was appointment as Brigadier commanding the Cavalry brigade and they returned to Egypt. Many of the war horses would be 22, with the average life of a horse being 30. Mrs Brookes could not forget the horses and one of the first things she realised upon hearing of her husbands appointment was that she must use the opportunity to discover if any of the horses were still alive, and there were many.
Dorothy was so very shocked by what she saw that she wrote a letter to the British news papers to obtain funding for the proposed "Old War Horse Hospital". The letter changed historyand the lives of many horses.
Letters poured in to her office in Egypt and within three years she was able to purchase 5000 cavalry horses still working in Egypt - with the equivalent of more than 20 000 pounds of donations from the British public.
Since the opening of the Old War Horse Memorial Hospital, it is now known as the Brooke Hospital for Animals and has helped literally millions of animals and their owners.