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Spielberg’s 'War Horse': Animal Heroes of the Great War (Part 1)

Mules, donkeys, pigeons, garden slugs, and a famous dog from Connecticut also played key roles in World War I.

Spielberg’s 'War Horse': Animal Heroes of the Great War (Part 1) Spielberg’s 'War Horse': Animal Heroes of the Great War (Part 1) Spielberg’s 'War Horse': Animal Heroes of the Great War (Part 1)


When it comes to making a good war movie, Steven Spielberg has few rivals.

Until very recently, Spielberg focused his considerable talents and resources on World War II. No surprise here, as his dad fought in the war, and he was brought up in the postwar era, having been born about 15 months after World War II ended. Schindler’s List, the HBO series hits Band of Brothers and The Pacific and, of course, his poignant D-Day drama Saving Private Ryan are among his most popular war movies. Even his early hit Raiders of the Lost Ark has World War II as its backdrop. He also helped Clint Eastwood produce Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers.

Spielberg’s latest war movie, however, deals with World War I — known popularly as the “Great War.” The movie is called War Horse, and it's an inspiring tale of loyalty and devotion between humans and horses; furthermore, it deals with an under-publicized element of World War I: the valuable role that animals played in the war — a topic with a significant Connecticut connection.

The movie is based on a young-adult novel of the same name written in 1982 by the acclaimed British novelist Michael Morpurgo. The inspiration for the work came in part from an elderly cavalry veteran of World War I named Captain Budgett from the Devon village of Iddesleigh — the author’s home. In fact, Budgett’s granddaughter plays a bit role in one of the indoor scenes in the movie. Morpurgo himself also has a cameo in the movie. Morpurgo’s book has recently been adapted to the stage both in England and in the United States, and it was at the theater that Speilberg first encountered the story.

The story follows the life of a beautiful and powerful bay thoroughbred horse named Joey who gets separated from his devoted young master, Albert Narracott, by dire economic circumstances. Albert’s dad — a veteran of the Boer War — has had to sell the steed to the British army for service in the Great War. After initially serving with the British cavalry, Joey and a companion horse named Topthorne get captured by the Germans with whom they both serve for a short while. They then come into the possession of a young French girl named Emilie, who is especially devoted to Joey. Emilie sadly loses them back to the Germans, who put Joey and Topthorne to work towing large artillery pieces. In the chaos of trench warfare, Joey breaks free but gets stuck in no-man’s land, tangled in barbed wire.

In a scene reminiscent of the famous Christmas truce of 1914, a British and a German soldier work together to free Joey in no-man’s land. They succeed. The Brit wins a coin toss and takes ownership. Injured, Joey makes it back to the British lines where he has an improbable reunion with Albert — now a wounded soldier looking for Joey. The encounter saves the wounded horse’s life. However, Albert must now compete with Emilie’s grandfather to regain possession of Joey at an auction of war horses following the armistice. The final scene dealing with that encounter is poignant.

Novelist Morpurgo has estimated that the number of horses from both sides killed during World War I exceeded 10 million — a figure slightly larger than the usual estimate of soldiers from both sides who died during the conflict. Horses during the Great War served with cavalry units but were mostly used to pull artillery pieces, wagons, and ambulances — very rigorous work and often done under dire conditions, as the movie well demonstrates. War Horse accurately depicts all of these equine functions during the war as well as the heavy toll exacted on both the animals and humans. The sense of waste that is so characteristic of the Great War is palpable.

The extreme rainstorms that characterized the war years made conditions terrible for both man and animals. The prevalence of mud and damp conditions contributed to widespread diseases of the skin, legs, and hooves of horses.  Shell holes filled with water often were so deep that both men and horses disappeared in them and drowned, especially at the Battle of Passchendaele, as the following passage from Harold Baynes’s definitive study of the topic, Animal Heroes of the
Great War,
clearly demonstrates:

But more dangerous even than the shells themselves are the craters now filled with water. They are so numerous that it is almost impossible to avoid them all in the dark, and one misstep by a floundering gun horse or an overladen mule sends him down to his death. Thousands of animals, and many men as well, died in the flooded shell holes at Vimy Ridge alone. These holes are so deep, the sides are so steep, and the mud so soft and yielding, that once an animal gets in he is usually doomed. Of course, his driver always makes desperate and pathetic efforts to save him but usually his last kind act is to put a bullet in his old friend’s head to end his misery. It is at such times that rough men show their softer natures. … Often they are choked with emotion, and the tears run down their grimy cheeks — tears which their own physical suffering, no matter how terrible, could never have wrung from them.

Americans concerned about the welfare of horses in World War I appealed to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker for help. On May 22, 1916, Baker asked the American Humane Association to establish a welfare service for horses and mules in the U.S. Army — an organization similar to the American Red Cross. The American Red Star Relief was organized for that purpose. Their most important action was to recruit a veterinary corps for the army that eventually grew to 2,313 members. Headquarters for the American Red Star Relief was at 287 State Street in Albany, NY. They issued many posters asking the public to contribute to the relief fund for American horses and mules. (See photos in gallery above.)

Following the war, the American Red Star Relief commissioned a bronze plaque to be erected in the War Department building in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the indispensable service given by the war horse during the Great War. Unveiled by President Harding’s wife on Oct. 15, 1921, the plaque reads as follows:  

This tablet commemorates the service and sufferings of the 243,135 mules and horses employed by the American Expeditionary Forces overseas during the Great World War, which terminated November 11, 1918, and which resulted in the death of 68,682 of those animals. What they suffered is beyond words to describe. A fitting tribute to their important services has been given by the commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, General John J. Pershing, who has written: “The army horses and mules proved of inestimable value in prosecuting the war to a successful conclusion. They were found in all the theaters of preparation and operation doing their silent but faithful work without the faculty for hoping for any reward or compensation.” 

(Next week: Part II will examine how pigeons,
garden slugs, and the most famous animal hero of the war — a dog from Connecticut — played key roles in World War I

Notes, Sources, and Links

1. Fourteen different horses were used to play the role of Joey in the movie. A mechanical horse was used to portray Joey when he was tangled in barbed wire.

2. All photos of the posters are from usmilitariaforum.com.

3. American casualties in the Great War — both human and equine — were much less than those suffered by the European nations. The war began in August of 1914; the USA declared war on April 6, 1917.

4. The definitive study of the role of animals in World War I is Animal Heroes of the Great War by Ernest Harold Baynes, published in 1927 by the Macmillan Company. It is the major source for much of this article, including both quotations in the article.

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