The animals sent to war: the facts behind the fiction in ‘War Horse’

12 January 2012 | Kate Clements

The big-screen adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s First World War-set children’s book, War Horse, has attracted mass media interest following its recent release.

A pack horse is led through the mud near Beaumont Hamel, November 1916

Although a work of fiction, behind the Hollywood hype lie aspects of the realities of the First World War.

The Steven Spielberg epic tells how a farm horse named Joey and his owner, Albert, are both caught up in war.

Albert enlists in the British Army and fights on the Western Front, while Joey is put to work there too, firstly in a cavalry charge and later by drawing an ambulance.

In reality, millions of horses were used by all combatant nations during the First World War. They transported men and equipment, pulled vehicles and guns, and went into battle.

The casualty rates were very high – around a million British horses went to war between 1914 and 1918 and just 65,000 came back. The animals died from exhaustion, disease, shelling, bullets and poison gas attacks.

British author Michael Morpurgo based his book on the reminiscences of three real-life veterans of the First World War. Albert Weeks, Wilfrid Ellis and Arthur Budgett lived in the same Devonshire village that was home to the writer. They related to him their experiences of war, in particular their relationships with the horses that served with them.