My kingdom for a horse…
As Spielberg’s new blockbuster ignites a debate about the way we treat animals, Dominic Prince tells the truly inspiring, and tragic, tales of the REAL war horses
My maternal grandfather, Percy Hazzard, a Somerset farmer of some means, was a professional soldier. He saw action in the first Iraq war (Mesopotamia) and, unable to leave his charger behind, he brought it back to the West Country. The horse, which he named Ahmed, spent his later years at Slades Farm in the Somerset village of Templecombe; here he must have lived to a ripe old age as my mother (born in 1928) remembers him, and the great affection my grandfather had for him. Percy and Ahmed spent many a chilly winter's day hunting with the Blackmore & Sparkford Vale Hunt – a true example of comrades in arms.
Getting Ahmed back from Iraq must have been a remarkable feat in itself. During the earlier Boer War, of the 669,775 horses that were sent to the front line, 400,000 were killed. And during the First World War, more than 8 million horses in total were killed and 2.5 million were injured.
Quite apart from the human and equine tragedy, the financial burden of the First World War was horrendous. At its outbreak the British Army had only 25,000 horses – a chronic shortfall. Although families with private means and officers supplied their own horses, the British Army spent £36m buying horses both privately and at auction. Today's financial equivalent is well in excess of £1.55bn.
The battle tasks for animals were relentless. Horses were needed to haul essential supplies like heavy guns and food; to heave the sick and wounded to hospital in ambulances; to struggle through the filthy mire of the trenches and witness the carnage first hand as chargers.
Indeed, the great war poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote during the First World War about his horse: 'Had I been near enough to study his facial expression, I should have seen what I already know, that Cockbird defi nitely disliked being a trooper's charger.' It was a brutal and nasty existence but is it not appealing to marvel at Sassoon's thoughts for his horse, not for himself? No cumbersome pity, merely reflections on the state of mind of his horse.
Finally, there is the tale of General Jack Seely and his horse Warrior, which had been bred by him on the Isle of Wight. In 1914 he took it to France where the pair of them survived four years of bombs, bullets and gas. In 1918, Warrior led a cavalry charge before returning to England where he not only hunted from his home, but also won the Isle of Wight point-to-point race on 30 March 1922.
As Seely wrote in his book Warrior, 'It was the anniversary of that great day when he had galloped through the British and German front lines to save Amiens and the Allied Cause. We rode home together over the downs rejoicing in this splendid conclusion of an anniversary, which neither of us could ever forget.'
After the First World War, there were more than 500,000 horses standing and of those, 60,000 were sold to Belgium for meat and 100,000 were sent home where they returned to the land. Hunting, perhaps pulling the odd cart but, soon after, superseded by the internal combustion engine and the motor car. Progress and, in many ways, at a good price.
No longer the needless slaughter of both man and beast but neither the implacable bond between horse and man. In a way though, it does still live on. In 2009, it was mentioned by Professor David Nutt, the previous government's drug policy adviser who identifi ed a condition he called 'equasy' (equine addiction syndrome), which he described as being more dangerous than ecstasy. For that remark he was sacked by the Brown government.
Winston Churchill put it a better way when he said, 'No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle'. Percy Hazzard and Jack Seely would surely have approved.
The exhibition War Horse: Fact & Fiction is at the National Army Museum till August 2012: 020-7881 6606, www.nam.ac.uk
Daily tip from the lady archive
“HEAVEN forbid that we should go back to the days when beauty was under suspicion and plain girls were assumed to have angelic natures.”The Lady. With Prejudice. 28th April 1938