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Michael Morpurgo: War Horse

English author Michael Morpurgo's famous novel, War Horse, tells the story of the important role that horses played during the Great War. Although the equine hero of War Horse is fictional, his story is based on the true horrors experienced by the eight million horses who died on all sides.

The First World War was the final time cavalry charges were used as a viable form of attack, since advances in mechanised machinery led to more modern tactics after the final cavalry charge of 1918 on the Western Front.

Morpurgo was inspired to write War Horse after meeting veterans of the Great War, who remembered the suffering of the horses. He wanted to write a book from the horses' point of view and it became a bestseller that was made into a stage play and a film.

War horse

© Bettina Strenske / Alamy Stock Photo


The author

Born in 1943 in St Albans, Hertfordshire, Morpurgo graduated from King's College London and then attended Sandhurst Royal Military Academy. Rather than taking a position in the military, he pursued a career as a teacher, teaching at schools in Kent and Cambridge.

He began writing after feeling inspired by the works of English poet Ted Hughes and American novelists Paul Gallico and Ernest Hemingway. Hughes became his neighbour, friend and mentor.

Morpurgo discovered his vocation was writing while teaching in Kent. He later said he could see there was "magic" in it for the children, making him realise he found it magical too. His first published book was It Never Rained: Five Stories in 1974.

He went on to write some of the best-sellers of the modern era, winning a host of literary awards, including the Whitbread Children's Book Award, the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize Gold Award and the Blue Peter Book of the Year Award, to name but a few.


War Horse

Morpurgo's most famous novel to date is War Horse, written in 1982. He was inspired to write it after meeting real-life First World War veterans and hearing their stories. Morpurgo married his wife Claire and they settled in the village of Iddesleigh in Devon.

War veteran Wilfred Ellis drank in their local pub and had many fascinating tales to tell of what life had been like for the horses and riders of the Devon Yeomanry. He also met another local resident, Captain Budgett, who had ridden in the cavalry during the First World War.

A third villager, Albert Weeks, recalled how the Army had come to the village to buy horses from ordinary people. The horses were trained and sent to war.

From conversations with these three veterans, Morpurgo began to form the idea of writing War Horse. He was unsure if he could write it from the horse's viewpoint, but another event convinced him it was a good idea.


Charity farms

He and his wife had launched a charity project in the 1970s, called Farms for City Children. It enabled inner-city children to spend time living and working on rural farms so they could experience a different way of life.

Morpurgo recalled one young boy called Billy coming to the farm from Birmingham. His teachers said he rarely spoke because he had a pronounced stammer, but during his holiday, Billy formed an amazing bond with one of the horses on the farm - a mare called Hebe.

He would stand by the stable door, when he thought no-one was listening, chatting away to Hebe every evening, with no sign of a stammer. Morpurgo noticed that she was listening, as her ears were twitching.

The teachers were amazed at how the child who normally couldn't get one word out was chatting away freely, all the fear gone, while Hebe stood listening. The amazing relationship between the boy and horse finally convinced the author that his book idea could become a reality.


The real war horses

Horses were heavily used during the Great War. They were involved in the first military conflict involving the British - a cavalry attack in August 1914, near Mons. Although they were used as cavalry horses, they were primarily a means of transport for troops and equipment.

Both Britain and Germany had a cavalry force when war broke out in Western Europe in 1914, each numbering around 100,000 troops. However, as the war continued, trench warfare made cavalry charges almost impossible.

This form of warfare belonged to a bygone era. Machine guns, trenches and barbed wire fences made them impractical, as millions of horses were killed.

The First World War finally saw an end to cavalry charges. In the spring of 1918, the British launched what was to be their final cavalry charge on the Western Front. Of the 150 horses involved, only four survived, as the rest were killed by German machine gun fire.

The war took its toll on the horses - more than eight million died on all sides during the conflict. Of the 2.5 million horses treated in veterinary hospitals, around two million were sent back to active duty.


Book plot

Morpurgo wrote his book, War Horse, about a horse called Joey, who was bought at an auction for three guineas as a plough horse. The owner, Ted, is a heavy drinker and his son, Albert, forms a strong bond with Joey. Ted sells the horse to the Army and Albert can't stop him.

Joey is trained up for the Army and Albert pledges to find and save him. During a cavalry charge, Joey and his friend Topthorn are captured by the German troops and used to pull a military ambulance. They save many lives and become much-loved.

Eventually, they are released to work on a farm, pulling a plough. They are cared for by the farmer's daughter, Emilie, who loves them, but they are acquired by the German army again and become part of an artillery-pulling team. Sadly, Topthorn dies and Joey is injured in no man's land.

He is taken to an Allied veterinary hospital, where Albert is working. He recognises Joey as his old farm horse and begins to care for him again, but at the end of the war, the Army announces it is to sell off all the horses at auction, despite the soldiers' protests.

Joey is bought by Emilie's grandfather, who is the highest bidder. He lets Albert take Joey back to England, where they live in peace for the remainder of their life.


Film and stage show

The book, War Horse, was a big hit in 1982 and was runner-up for the Whitbread Book Award. It was also made into a play by Nick Stafford, also called War Horse. It was first staged at the Olivier Theatre in London, opening on 17th October 2007.

It was greeted with great critical acclaim, largely as a result of its use of life-size puppet horses from the Handspring Puppet Company. It won an Olivier Award, the London Critics' Circle Theatre Award and the Evening Standard Theatre Award. The play transferred to Broadway in New York in February 2010 and continues to tour all over the world today.

Steven Spielberg directed a movie adaptation of War Horse, with Jeremy Irvine cast in the lead role of Albert. Released on 25th December 2011, it won a host of awards, including the American Film Institute Awards' film of the year 2011 and six Academy Award nominations.

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