Steven Spielberg’s War Horse – A Testimony to Our Relationship with Horses

Released to global acclaim in 2011, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is an epic testimony to the longevity and power of the relationship between mankind and horses. Showing the 65 year old director at his masterful best, the film chronicles the experiences of an English west country farmer, Albert, as he tracks down his Stallion Joey on the battlefields of First World War France, where he has been bought as a ‘War Horse’ after being forcibly purchased by the Army. There, having volunteered to fight in the trenches, Albert must survive the horrors of trench warfare and man’s barbarism and find Joey, in a time and place where horses – much like all life – were treated like disposable tools.

War Horse Directed by Steven Spielberg

The film has already won many awards, made a vast amount of money and has earned its director further critical acclaim, with a theatre adaptation fast on the way. But this franchise has a real, honest heart. Watching the movie, and knowing Steven Spielberg’s love of filming issues that affect or resonate with him personally you can tell he wanted to shed some light on a slightly less human – but nonetheless, just as poignant – casualty of war and terror; the horse.

Fighting horses or draught animals

As the film shows, horses played a central and significant role in the First World War, giving both sides a mobility and carrying capacity that could not be provided to them by human strength alone. They could work in the mud and rain of the trenches where wheeled vehicles could not, and could be a lot more hardy than any machine. Both sides, when the war began, underwent a great scramble to find and re – appropriate any horse they could find. Millions of horses soon found themselves transported to the front – by 1917 the American Army, for instance, had procured and sent overseas over 1 million horses – either as fighting animals or as methods of transportation, carrying heavy weapons to, and wounded men back, from the frontal areas. They were also used to boost morale in the armies, terrified by the sounds and sights of war. Many men found companionship and friendship in the War Horses serving on the front. It has been estimated that, in total, over 6 million horses served in the war, and in some armies the ratio of horses to men was 1 horse to ever three men. These ‘War Horses’ suffered prodigious losses. The British Army, which counted their losses of ‘War Horses’ lost 484,000 in the years 1914 – 1918. The American Army suffered such terrible losses that, after the war, only 200 returned home.

Killed by disease or enemy action

War was a terrible time for horses. Attrition rates amongst horses were so high that few states who fought in the war left it with any more than a few thousand of the horses they originally sent. In some theaters – particularly those in the hot, disease ridden African states – losses were over 290% of the intake rate, meaning that by the end of the war some states – such as America and Germany – had literally run out of horses, and were relying upon donkeys or mules, or horses ‘captured’ on offensives. Perhaps the greatest killer of horses in the war was disease. Infections such as Equine Influenza and ringworm killing off scores of horses. It has been estimated that 75% of all horse losses were caused by disease in the conflict. The Germany army actually undertook several offensives in the latter part of the war with the principle aim of capturing new stocks of horses. Their loss of horses in the later years of the conflict was one of the main reasons the Central Powers lost the war.

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Perhaps the greatest shame of all in the treatment suffered by horses in this period was in the post war environment, when the few horses that had survived war found themselves either abandoned, wandering lost in what had been no – man’s land, or sold and re – sold, desperately needed both to plough the ruined fields and as meat for the starving European populations, many of whom found themselves in starvation conditions because of lack of horses needed to work the farmland. Australia, which ended the war with a surprisingly large number of living horses – some 10,000 – found itself unable to get the horses back to its native shores. Most of them were sold off, mainly to India. Only one War Horse – Sandy – ever returned to Australia, which as it was desperately needed them to work its huge farms.

Heroes

The role of the horse in the war was huge. It can be fairly said that horses made a massive, genuine contribution to the allied war effort and to overall victory in the war. Much deserved thanks to their sacrifice was made in the form of various plaques, memorials and organizations – such as the Blue Cross – dedicated to re housing and helping abandoned or unhealthy horses. The St. Jude on the Hill memorial in England to this day bears the solemn inscription: “Most obediently and often most painfully they died – faithful unto death.” One hopes that the renewed interest in the terrible sacrifices horses made for human warfare all those years ago created by films such as War Horse will allow their role in that most important of events to be remembered forever.


Rebecca King used to ride every day, from eventing to regular hacking. As a horsebox insurance underwriter she no longer has much time but is returning to livery work this summer.

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