War Horse Is a Story I Had to Write; as the Awardwinning Adaptation of His Great War Novel Transfers to the West End, the Author Pays Tribute to the Eight Million Noble Beasts That Perished in the Trenches
Byline: MICHAEL MORPURGO
IWAS a war baby, born in 1943. As I grew up, I soon learned how war had torn my world apart. I lived next to a bombsite, played in it because we weren't supposed to, and because it was the best adventure playground imaginable. But I soon learned that more than buildings were destroyed by war. My parents had split up because of it. I knew my uncle Pieter, killed in 1941, in the RAF, through a photograph, through the stories I heard of him, through the grief my mother, his sister, lived every day of her life. I missed him and I'd never known him.
All I knew was what I'd been told, that he'd given his life for our freedom. I thought the world of him for that. I still do. I had another uncle, Uncle Francis, who at the start of the war was a pacifist until he heard of the death of his brother. I think the world of him, too.
As a teenager I read Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden -- all the great war poets. Their words reached out to me and troubled me. I saw the film of All Quiet on the Western Front, understood properly then the suffering was on both sides, universal. I remember I went to the theatre to see Joan Littlewood's Oh, What a Lovely War! I listened to Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. I understood more and more what Wilfred Owen meant by the pity of war, the futility of this "huge senseless" war, as Ted Hughes called it.
Before I wrote War Horse in 1984 I had touched on the subject of war only once in my writing, in a novella about the evacuated children during the Second World War -- Friend or Foe, I called it -- I had some hazy personal experience of this, being an evacuee myself. The First World War was too epic, too immense, too overwhelmingly destructive I felt for me to tackle. And besides, what more was there to say about it that had not already been said by great writers? But then I met a man in a pub. It was in my village, The Duke of York, in Iddesleigh in Devon. He was in his eighties and I knew he'd been to the First World War as a young man. For no good reason I happened to ask him what regiment he'd been in. "Devon Yeomanry," he said, "I was there with 'orses." He told me things beside the fire in the pub that day that you don't read in poems or books, that you didn't see in films. It was as if he was taking me by the hand and showing me, passing it on; about living with fear and horror, about how the only person he could talk to was his horse, when he was feeding him at night, alone.
Then some weeks later I came across a picture by one FW Reed, painted in 1917, of British cavalry horses in the First World War charging up a hill towards the German positions, towards the wire. Some were already entangled in it. Like the private in the old song, they were "hanging on the old barbed wire". I telephoned the Imperial War Museum and asked if they knew how many horses had been killed in the First World War. A million or more, they told me, and that was just in the British army; probably eight million horses died on all sides. With the real possibility now growing in my head that I might write a story about the First World War, not from one side or the other, but from the perspective of a horse that is used by both armies, so that it could be a story of the universal suffering of that war, or any war, I began my research.
In 1914 the British Army was desperate for horses, for cavalry horses and for pulling guns, ambulances and ammunition wagons. They scoured the countryside, paying good money to farmers for sturdy farm horses, for hunting horses. There was, I soon learned, a sale of horses right outside my pub, The Duke of York, in 1914. They were taken for training. Above all they were trained not to panic -- horses hate sudden noises, gunshot, artillery. …