The War Horses of the Western Front

Michael Morpurgo’s popular novel War Horse (1982) has rightly been referred to as ‘the Black Beauty of the Great War’. Like Anna Sewell’s classic of 1877, the story unfolds from the perspective of the horse, a device that allows the author to explore the world of those voiceless but sentient creatures and invites us to reflect upon both the misery they have suffered at our hands and the compelling call of compassion that can transcend the boundaries of ‘human’ and ‘animal’. Morpurgo’s tale of the Devon horse Joey, serving on the killing fields of the Western Front and followed there by Albert, the young farm boy from whom he had been separated in 1914, has already made the leap successfully to the stage. Now Joey gallops onto the big screen, courtesy of the greatest wizard of modern cinema, Steven Spielberg. The movie version of War Horse is released in British cinemas this month. With the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War approaching in 2014, the film is a timely reminder of the service of horses and mules during that conflict and a call to historians to follow in the wake of novelists and do justice to the true story of equine sacrifice in Flanders’ field.

It is likely that the film will be criticised as ‘sentimental’, especially given the involvement of Spielberg, whose ability to tug heartstrings is familiar to everyone who has seen his 1982 hit ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. Furthermore the emphasis on taking the viewpoint of the horse, alongside the central premise of a friendship between that beast and a human, might be dismissed by some as an anthropomorphic conceit unworthy of serious academic attention. We should accept neither charge. ‘Sentimentality’ towards animals is, in itself, a fascinating and significant historical phenomenon. Black Beauty was indicative of a broad change in attitudes towards animals in Victorian society, reflecting the idea that they were not merely ‘soulless automatons’, but had a manifest capacity for suffering that demanded an ethical response from humans. Thus in one of the most respected textbooks of the time, Sir F. W. Fitzwygram’s Horses and Stables (1901), the author explicitly posited the notion of ‘an animal soul’ and commented:

It is impossible for a man of average sensibility to observe closely and to note the painful expression and the intelligence of these creatures … to witness their sufferings [and] the brutal treatment which they too often meet from ignorant and cruel men; it is impossible for him to see these things without sorrow, without endeavouring to alleviate their agony …

Sentiment was evident, too, in the horrified reaction of the British public to the suffering of horses during the Second Boer War. At the conclusion of the conflict in 1902 the Remount Department had supplied 520,000 horses and 150,000 mules to Imperial forces in South Africa. These were carelessly transported, poorly acclimatised, starved, overworked and overloaded. Unsurprisingly 350,000 of the horses and 50,000 of the mules perished. The British public would brook no repetition of this callousness. During the First World War the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would oversee many aspects of the army’s treatment of horses and provide voluntary ambulances, with trained staff, to assist the Army Veterinary Corps in France. ‘Sentimentality’ was, and is, an appropriate response to animal suffering.

Likewise the suggestion of anthropomorphism should not be an undue concern. We know enough about horse psychology to appreciate their perspectives. Let us take the example of ‘friendship’. Horses are gregarious creatures. They form strong personal attachments to other horses and to humans. They have long memories and will recognise individuals from whom they have been parted, even after a separation of many years. Horses can thus forge ‘friendships’; Joey’s relationship with Albert is not so far-fetched. Much else in horses’ experiences in France closely mirrors those of their human comrades and can be understood in similar terms.

As Tommy’s body swarmed with lice, so war horses contended with parasites that burrowed deep into their skin causing ‘sarcoptic mange’. As the mud, cold and wet attacked Tommy’s feet, so they struck at the horses’ hooves, leading to painful, debilitating ailments known as ‘grease’ or ‘canker’. Just as Tommy shivered in filth and slime, so the horse shared his misery; even away from the lines conditions could be appalling. In the first winter of the war, before enough adequate shelters could be built, Major-General Sir John Moore witnessed horses ‘drown in liquid mud and dung’.

The unremitting strain of warfare took its toll on the nerves of horses as it did men; many ‘cracked up’, growing listless and uninterested in everything around them, even refusing food. Nor did shot, shell or poison gas distinguish between human and animal flesh. Mention of the pitiful, heart-rending screams of dying and injured horses is a recurrent feature of soldiers’ memoirs; D.W.J. Cuddeford, an officer of the Highland Light Infantry, and his men ‘put bullets into the poor brutes’ careering across the battlefield in agony, after a German bombardment had pulverised a British cavalry unit holding the village of Monchy, near Arras, in April 1917.

In one sense War Horse might distort understanding by reinforcing the notion that the main military use of horses was by the cavalry. In fact, in France and Belgium, the war was dominated by the artillery, infantry and engineers and it was these arms that employed the most horses and mules, for draught work. Motor transport and light railways were important to the logistics of the British Expeditionary Force, but they did not supplant true horse-power. In August 1914 the British Expeditionary Force took 53,000 animals with it to France, eventually rising to a figure of 591,000 in 1917. Shires, Clydesdales and Percherons pulled the largest guns and the heaviest wagons. Lighter horses and stalwart North American mules kept the field artillery mobile, packed or hauled ammunition, rations and equipment into the front line and supported the vast infrastructure of camps and depots of the British rear areas. The efficiency of the British purchasing commission in the United States and Canada was crucial to maintaining the supply of high-quality draught animals to the Empire’s forces in the field. Every one and a half days, from 1914 to 1918, a cargo of some 500 American and Canadian horses and mules sailed for Europe.

There is a final uncomfortable truth for the audience of War Horse to consider. Although the treatment of animals in the First World War was far superior to the South African War, the scale of the conflict ensured that ultimately the death toll was just as horrific. Each year the BEF lost 15 per cent of its animals, dead or missing. During large-scale engagements, equine casualties swiftly mounted; the German spring offensives of 1918 cost the lives of 14,000 horses and mules. Of the survivors, at the war’s end, 112,132 were repatriated and sold at auction. During the war itself, 7,775 horses judged too weary or injured to serve on, but still fit enough to work, had been ‘cast’ in France, sold to local farmers and breeders.

Another 49,498 were slaughtered to provide meat for civilians and rations for German POWs. The policy caused unease among the British public, but the response was token; officials of the RSPCA were detailed to supervise the veterans’ last march to the abattoir. Notwithstanding the growth of genuine concern for the welfare of horses and mules in military service, they remained, finally, items of equipment, to be disposed of as the necessities of war demanded. Is it pure sentimentality to wish that it might have been otherwise?

Gervase Phillips