I’m absolutely thrilled that the movie War Horse (based on the play with handspring puppets, which was based on the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo) is coming out in the theaters this month. And it’s not just because I love a horse movie, but because it makes me happy when the general public discovers how important horses were in our history and the sacrifices they made for mankind.
War Horse takes place during World War I (The Great War) and it would be the last major conflict in which military sources used mounted cavalry. But even so, the horses’ use was restricted due to the wide scale employment of barbed wire strung across the battlefield, not to mention the machine gun, which easily ended any cavalry charge in the most deadly way. Nevertheless, horses and mules were conscripted and used for transport, supplies and moving artillery.
Here is the very sad part. Draft horses, light horses, and mules died in great numbers. Between 1914 and 1918 the US exported nearly a million horses to the war effort in Europe. 6 million equines served in total. Most of them perished on the battlefields. Most of the ones who did make it through were slaughtered in France. Very few made it home.
British author Jilly Cooper, who wrote the scandalous and hysterically funny novel Riders, worked tirelessly to get a war monument to animals installed at Brook Gate, Park Lane, near London’s Hyde Park. She succeeded in 2004, and the the Animals in War Memorial is beautiful. The first inscription on the monument reads:
This monument is dedicated to all the animals
that served and died alongside British and allied forces
in war and campaigns throughout time
They had no choice
Moira and I wrote about warhorses in The Original Horse Bible, and although we knew about the horses’ fate, it still upset us all the same. Between World War I and II, many breeds neared extinction, such as the Exmoor pony, the Cleveland Bay, and the Trakehner.
I suppose this is why I nearly burst into tears this last weekend when I took my niece and nephews to see the movie Hugo and saw a huge cardboard display advertising War Horse. I was toast when the first trailers came on TV. Only last night my husband caught me welling up. I just can’t help it. When the part where Joey, the star of the movie, is on the battlefield in harness, he turns his head and his little face, his white blaze, is covered in mud. It gets me, it really does. I just want to run out to the barn and bury my face in my horse’s mane. See for yourself:
Show of hands. Who cried?