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War Horse – The True Story

By Dr. Ron Clarke, DVM
Clarke Communication


Eight million horses, donkeys and mules died in World War 1 (WWI), three-quarters of them from the extreme conditions they worked in. At the start of the war, the British Army had 25,000 horses. Another 115,000 were purchased compulsorily under the Horse Mobilization Scheme. Over the course of the war, between 500 and 1,000 horses were shipped to Europe every day. This shortfall required the United States to help with remount efforts, even before it had formally entered the war. Between 1914 and 1918, the US sent almost one million horses overseas, and another 182,000 were taken overseas with American troops. Canada sent about 130,000 horses overseas during WWI. By the end of the war, Canada had provided well over 10 per cent of the horses used on the Western Front. One-quarter of all horse deaths were due to gunfire and gas; exhaustion and disease claimed the rest.

Many horses were initially used as traditional cavalry horses, but their vulnerability to modern machine gun and artillery fire meant their role changed to transporting troops and ammunition. Military vehicles were relatively new inventions and prone to problems. Horses and mules were more reliable and cheaper forms of transport. Thousands of horses pulled field guns, brought ammunition and supplies to front lines, hauled feed and carried battle casualties to field hospitals. Up to 12 horses were required to pull heavy artillery.

The movie War Horse is a 2011 American war film directed and co-produced by Steven Spielberg, based on Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel of the same name. The Sunday Times points out: "The star of Spielberg's film [War Horse] is fictional. The horse, Warrior, remains the true equine hero of 1914-1918.”

The book, WARRIOR: The Amazing Story of a Real War Horse (published 1934) and documentary: War Horse: The Real Story (TV Movie 2012) is the extraordinary and deeply moving story of the million British horses that served in WWI. The true story is more epic than the Spielberg feature film. It too is about the deep bond that develops between man and horse under very stressful conditions, a bond that helped both human and horse survive the hell of the Somme and Passchendaele.

First published as My Horse Warrior by General Jack Seely in 1934, Warrior was published again in 2011 and then in paperback in 2013 and 2014. Introduced by Seely’s grandson, writer and broadcaster Brough Scott, it contains the original drawings and paintings by the famous equine and war artist, Sir Alfred Munnings, painted of Warrior on the Western Front in 1918 and at home on the Isle of Wight after the war. Warrior is an amazing story, all the more wondrous because it is true (Brough Scott).

Authored by Winston Churchill's heroic friend, Jack Seely, the book tells the story of the thoroughbred horse he took to France in 1914, surviving five years of bombs and bullets to lead a cavalry charge in 1918 before returning home where they rode on together until 1938 — their combined ages (70+30) totalled 100. The book tells the history of Warrior from his birth in an Isle of Wight field to his amazing life as a famous war horse, and how a combination of the horse's extraordinary character and some unbelievable twists of fate helped him survive a war which claimed the lives of so many horses.

The story begins with the mass call-up of horses from every farm and country estate in the land. Brough Scott tells the tale of his aristocratic grandfather General Jack Seely and his beloved horse Warrior, who would become the most famous horse of the war, renowned for his amazing courage and a mascot to the troops.

The British Army hoped its illustrious cavalry regiments would win a swift victory, but it would be years before they enjoyed their moment of glory. The heavy horses transporting guns, ammunition and food to the front line troops tragically resulted in a quarter of a million deaths
due to shrapnel wounds and disease. Behind the lines, an army of veterinarians worked miracles to treat injured horses and keep them going.

The finest hour of the cavalry came on March 30, 1918, when Seely, on his war horse Warrior, and a number of Canadian regiments made one of history’s last-ever cavalry charges against the Germans near Amien. They checked the German advance and helped win the war.

Heartache for war horses didn’t end with armistice. At war’s end, 85,000 of the oldest were sold for horsemeat to feed prisoners of war and starving citizens in France and Belgium. Half a million horses were sold to French farmers to help rebuild the countryside. Only 60,000 made it back to Britain. Six black horses that survived the war together would pull the body of the Unknown Warrior to its last resting place in Westminster Abbey. But the most famous war horse of all to return in glory was Warrior. His story, like the million other British horses who served, should never be forgotten.

Warrior, a small sturdy bay thoroughbred, born in April 1908 a couple of miles from General Jack Seely’s home on the Isle of Wight, cheated death for five years. With his bold head and fearless eye, he became a symbol of indomitability. By then they said “the bullet has not been made that could finish Warrior,” and when he died in 1941 at the grand age of 33, he was granted an unprecedented obituary in The Times under the title, “The Horse the Germans Could Not Kill.”

“His escapes were quite wonderful. Again and again he survived when death seemed certain and indeed, befell all his neighbours. It was not all hazard; sometimes it was due to his intelligence. I have seen him, even when a shell has burst within a few feet, stand still without a tremor – just turn his head and, unconcerned, look at the smoke of the burst.” - General Jack Seely