War Horse Heroes
In 1947 three Metropolitan Police horses, Olga, Upstart and Regal, received the newly conceived Dickin Medal for gallantry as a result of their calm resolve in the face of bomb attacks and fires in London at the height of the Blitz.
The Dickin Medal – sometimes called the animals’ VC – was the brainchild of animal charity worker, Maria Dickin, and 54 were also awarded to various dogs, pigeons and even one cat between 1943 and ‘49.
This novel concept, however, came too late for some one million horses who gave their lives on the Western Front during World War One or the estimate six to eight million four-legged fatalities from all sides during the monumental conflict.
In 1914 there were only around 25,000 horse recruits, but a further half a million shire horses and ponies were quickly rounded-up for the push on the other side of the English Channel, leaving farms and paddocks largely empty of these gracious creatures.
The actual figures seem to vary but one thing for certain is that the majority of horses who went over there were never to return – it is estimated around 60,000 to 65,000 returned from the Western Front – having served carrying heavy guns, transporting weapons, moving the dying and wounded and even taking part in cavalry charges.
Many of those left behind, who had given their all, came to an inglorious end in the abattoirs of Belgian and France, because they were considered too old and broken down to be worth bringing home.
Their story has been largely absorbed in the bigger narrative of the Great War – which had a roll call of horrors to reval any war or conflict in the twentieth century – but now their story has found a voice in book, which became a play, and finally a Steven Spielberg film.
War Horse, according to writer Michael Morpurgo who penned the book, was inspired by an old painting the author came across of a cavalry charge in the Great War, and was nurtured over a pint in an English pub.
In an article Morpurgo wrote for the Lincoln Center Theatre Review in the spring of 2011 – around the time the play featuring the horse stars as puppets was one of the most converted tickets in New York – he explained the genesis for the work.
He had told an old man, who was drinking in the Duke of York, that he wanted to write the story of the Great War through ‘the eyes of a horse’ and this was the spark which ignited a long and detailed inspirational conversation.
“I was there with the horses, too,” the old man told Morpurgo as his eyes filled with tears.
“He talked on for hours about the horse he’d loved and left behind at the end of the war, how the old horse had been sold off to the French butchers for meat.”
Morpurgo, who ran a Farms for City Children charity in Devon during the 1970s, was further inspired by the story of a young boy, Billy, who came to his farm and was so traumatized by his experience and tormented by a stammer that he had given up speaking at all from the age of seven.
“One November evening I had come to the farmhouse to read to the children,” he wrote.
“As I came into the stable yard behind the house, I found Billy standing there under the stable light, talking freely to one of the horses. He spoke confidently, knowing he was not being judged or mocked. And I had the very strong impression that the horse was listening, and understanding, too. It was an unforgettable moment for all three of us, I think. It was that extraordinary, inspirational, moment that gave me the confidence I needed to begin writing War Horse.”
I am writing this piece for OCS as a precursor for an article on the staging of War Horse, which I saw at the Lincoln Center in 2011, so that I could put the role of horses in war into some perspective (both for the reader and my own satisfaction) so I’d like to conclude with a pointer to another fine article featured in the Lincoln Center Theatre Review.
This one came from professional horse trainer, and writer, Monty Roberts, who penned his autobiography, The Man Who Listens to Horses, in 1996 and sold more than three million copies worldwide.
Roberts, who played a major role in bringing War Horse to the stage, maintains the horse is a true pacifist with a deep distain for violence, but despite that comes along with us and does the job without question.
“Horses want no part of war or any of the pain, the sound or the smell of it,” he wrote.
“The saddest chapter in any war was when the horses were left in trenches when the soldiers were shipped home. The horses did not get a hero’s reception back in the old hometown.”
Roberts concludes that War Horse is something of a belated welcome home for these magnificent loyal creatures who have given so much and suffered so cruelly.
Maybe they didn’t get the medal they deserved, but in the end they got a story in book, play and film form, which will hopefully live on.
War Horse is once again testament to the immorality which comes with great storytelling, from the ancients sitting around to the fire outside the cave to the multi-faceted high tech state-of-the-art contemporary forms of expression in theatre and film.
The National Theatre of Great Britain’s production of War horse, based on Morpurgo’s novel, adapted by Nick Stafford along with the Handspring Puppet Company, opens at the Queensland Performing Art Centre’s Lyric Theatre Saturday (July 6) and runs until the end of the month.