With the New Year release of Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse Gervase Phillips explores the true story of the horses and mules that served the British army during the First World War.
Pack horses carrying ammunition in Flanders, from ‘The Horse and the War’ by Captain Lionel Edwards, published by Country Life in 1918.
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.