ON SATURDAY, September 3, 1904, the 8th and 14th Hussars arrived in Southampton in readiness for a large scale military exercise which involved the mock invasion of Essex from the sea.

Their arrival caused quite a stir as they set up camp on the common with almost 2,000 horses. The docks too were busy with the arrival of five troop ships and 30 horse boats to transport the large force to the “invasion” area off the Essex coast.

All was going well until very early on Sunday morning when one of the horses of the 8th Hussars, which had broken a leg, was shot by a veterinary surgeon while it was in the horse lines. The flash and retort from the gun so frightened the other horses that they immediately stampeded. The Times reported that well over 1,000 horses were involved and that as they stampeded through the camp they tore through the tents and trampled on sleeping soldiers. They so frightened the horses of the 14th Hussars that some joined the stampede.

The chaos was unbelievable, with the horses setting off in all directions. Some headed for Winchester where 70 were found later that afternoon, while another drove ended up in Romsey. Most seemed to head for Southampton and in the process suffered many injuries, some from barbed wire and others from being crushed as a large number tried to force their way through the Bargate archway and were crushed against the stonework. Another drove was badly injured as they stampeded through roadworks associated with repairs to the tramways.

Many injuries were caused by the flailing metal pegs to which the horses had been initially tethered but were pulled from the ground in the panic and remained tied to the harnesses.

A group of about 200 horses made for the harbour where they plunged into the water, and several drowned. Men in boats set off to rescue them and struggled to coax the frightened animals from the water back on to dry land. Search parties were out all morning and by noon half of the distressed horses had been recovered. Some were discovered exhausted by the roadside and several were so badly injured that they had to be put down. A train-load of horses was sent back to Aldershot to be treated for injuries. In total over two thirds of the horses that stampeded were incapacitated by cuts bruises or fractures. Several soldiers were injured in the stampede, one so badly it was doubted he would survive. By early evening there were still about 100 horses missing with the consequence that the 8th Hussars did not sail but were replaced by the 1st Dragoons.

Despite the chaos and mayhem of the previous day, the following morning the supply wagons and the cavalry followed by the infantry formed a continuous column from the common through the town to the docks and on to 10 transport ships. The whole embarkation was conducted efficiently and professionally by the port authorities who had gained extensive experience from loading the regiments during the South African wars.

A far happier story involving the embarkation of troops from Southampton occurred nearly five years earlier in late 1899 when the troopship HMT Britannic was boarding the 2nd Battalion Cheshire Regiment for South Africa. A black retriever kept trying to board the ship but was each time driven back. When the ship cast off its moorings the dog was seen jumping into the water and swimming after the ship. The determination of the animal was admired and a boat sent off to fetch the hound and bring it aboard. The dog remained with the regiment in South Africa. Following what has become known as the Modder Engagement, the Cheshire Regiment was on outpost duty when the Leinster Regiment marched past. A strange whistle was heard and the dog dashed off to join the Leinsters who explained that he was their dog and that he had been lost when they were boarding in Southampton and they were forced to leave without him.

Godfrey Collyer is a tour guide with SeeSouthampton