War Horse: The Play Is Fiction But The Loss of 8 Million Horses In WWI Is Real

Posted on April 23, 2011


Scene From the play WAR HORSE a British Import at Lincoln Center

It was a Brit from an isle that loves its animals that gave us the story of Black Beauty.  Book sales went to fund the founding of Britain’s humane society. It is no wonder then that taking their horses into the last war in which they were depended upon became a painful enterprise. The stunning truth is this.  During WWI, there was not only an unbearable loss of human life; there was an unheralded loss of  horses and mules.  A total of 8 million horses perished from all sides.  Think about it.  Horse drawn caissons and other provision and equipment carriers were utilized since motorized vehicles were still new and unreliable.  Unthinkable carnage ended the mounted charge in this war.

An example of the impact the death of one of the war horses could have can be summed up in a short space:

He (Sailor) would work for 24 hours a day without winking. He was quiet as a lamb and as clever as a thoroughbred, but he looked like nothing on earth, so we lost him. The whole artillery battery kissed him goodbye and the drivers and gunners who fed him nearly cried.” [History Learning Site.UK]

Once again the story of a horse and those who loved him makes its way to our shores.  Based on a children’s novel, the play War Horse is playing a limited engagement at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln center.  Somehow we need to keep it here.  The staging is remarkable.  The horses are life-size puppets operated by 3 people that disappear thanks to the artful rendition they make of the original.

Based on the 1982 children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, “War Horse” is the story of young Albert Narracott, a farm boy from Devon, whose horse, Joey, is sent off to the cavalry in France during World War I. While there, Joey stumbles into all the horrors of combat, serves both British and German armies, and meets Topthorn, another cavalry horse. Though he is underage, Albert enlists in a desperate attempt to find Joey, ultimately spending years in battle with the hope of one day reuniting with his horse.

It is a tremendously simple narrative, linear and sweet — a love story of boy meets horse, boy loses horse, boy goes through hell to get horse back. But it takes place against the backdrop of World War I and emphasizes a part of its history that is seldom recounted. Britain lost between one and two million horses in the war, they died as gruesomely as soldiers, and suffered for nothing they understood.

“We don’t call them puppets,” says MacMillan, who operates Topthorn’s head. “No, we call them horses,” says Ganz, the heart. “They’re Joey and Topthorn.” [HuffPo]

This is a must-see!

The puppeteers give a demonstration:

A modern-day British soldier

Household Cavalry, Life Guards Summer Training, Holkham Beach, 2008


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