I recently enjoyed a wonderful birthday treat – a trip to London to see a performance of War Horse, which has inspired me to write an item for our blog about horses in World War 1.
The theatre programme contains lots of interesting information, including an article by Max Hastings, which was previously published in a longer version in the Daily Mail. Much of this is hard to read, but the facts are there – one million horses were sent from Britain to France during the war years, but only 62,000 returned – that’s a survival rate of 6 out of every 100, a sobering statistic.
In the 10% of France that was invaded during the war years, the 407,000 horses and mules that had been there before the war were reduced to 32,000 in 1918 – a survival rate just a little higher than the British horses, at nearly 8 out of every 100.
No need to ask what happened to all the horses that didn’t come home, but while in France they were put to a range of duties – as well as being ridden at full gallop into the enemy guns in cavalry charges, horses pulled guns and other equipment, ration carts and ambulances. They were worked relentlessly, killed and wounded by gunfire, poison gas and aeroplane bombs and often went hungry. Even though the British Army shipped tonnes of fodder across the Channel throughout the war years, there was never enough for full rations all round.
War Horse gives us a superb representation of what war was like for both men and horses. It made me think about the cruel conditions that both suffered during the conflict and realise that thousands of soldiers and horses were treated so similarly, being expected to survive in the wastelands of the battlefield and do whatever they were ordered to do, without question and to the limits of their ability (and often beyond them).
The joy of War Horse on stage is that, as well as being a great story about one of the 6% of horses that returned, it’s a fantastic spectacle with a brilliant cast and the most amazing horses. Now that the final performances have been announced, I urge you to buy your tickets soon – it’s an experience you won’t want to miss.