War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

  ‘Never, Sarge,’ said Albert, grinning from ear to ear. ‘He is getting better, isn’t he Sarge? I’m not just imagining it, am I?’

  ‘No, son,’ said Sergeant Thunder. ‘Your Joey is going to be all right by the looks of ’im, long as we keeps ’im quiet and so long as we don’t rush ’im. I just ’opes that if I’m ever poorly I ’ave nurses around me that looks after me like you lot ’ave this ’orse. One thing, though, looking at you, I’d like them to be an ’ole lot prettier!’

  Shortly after I found my legs again and then the stiffness left my back for ever. They took me out of the sling and walked me one spring morning out into the sunshine of the cobbled yard. It was a triumphant parade, with Albert leading me carefully walking backwards and talking to me all the while. ‘You’ve done it, Joey. You’ve done it. Everyone says the war’s going to be over quite soon – I know we’ve been saying that for a long time, but I feel it in my bones this time. It’ll be finished before long and then we’ll both be going home, back to the farm. I can’t wait to see the look on Father’s face when I bring you back up the lane. I just can’t wait.’


  BUT THE WAR did not end. Instead it seemed to move ever closer to us, and we heard once again the ominous rumble of gunfire. My convalescence was almost over now, and although still weak from my illness, I was already being used for light work around the veterinary hospital. I worked in a team of two, hauling hay and feed from the nearest station or pulling the dung cart around the yard. I felt fresh and eager for work once more. My legs and shoulders filled out and as the weeks passed I found I was able to work longer hours in harness. Sergeant Thunder had detailed Albert to be with me whenever I was working so that we were scarcely ever apart. But from time to time though Albert, like all the veterinary orderlies would be despatched to the front with the veterinary wagon to bring back the latest horse casualties, and then I would pine and fret, my head over the stable-door, until I heard the echoing rumble of the wheels on the cobbles and saw his cheery wave as he came in under the archway and into the yard.

  In time I too went back to the war, back to the front line, back to the whine and roar of the shells that I had hoped I had left behind me for ever. Fully recovered now and the pride of Major Martin and his veterinary unit, I was often used as the lead horse in the tandem team that hauled the veterinary wagon back and forth to the front. But Albert was always with me and so I was never afraid of the guns any more. Like Topthorn before him, he seemed to sense that I needed a continual reminder that he was with me and protecting me. His soft gentle voice, his songs and his whistling tunes held me steady as the shells came down.

  All the way there and back he would be talking to me to reassure me. Sometimes it would be of the war. ‘David says Jerry is about finished, shot his bolt,’ he said one humming summer’s day as we passed line upon line of infantry and cavalry going up to the front line. We were carrying an exhausted grey mare, a water carrier that had been rescued from the mud at the front. ‘Fair knocked us for six, he did, further up the line they say. But David says that that was their last gasp, that once those Yankees find their fighting legs and if we stand firm, then it could all be over by Christmas. I hope he’s right, Joey. He usually is – got a lot of respect for what David says – everyone has.’

  And sometimes he would talk of home and of his girl up in the village. ‘Maisie Cobbledick she’s called, Joey. Works in the milking parlour up Anstey’s farm. And she bakes bread. Oh Joey, she bakes bread like you’ve never tasted before and even Mother says her pasties are the tastiest in the parish. Father says she’s too good for me, but he doesn’t mean it. He says it to please me. And she’s got eyes, eyes as blue as cornflowers, hair as gold as ripe corn, and her skin smells like honeysuckle – ’cept when she first comes out of the dairy. I keep well away from her then. I’ve told her all about you, Joey. And she was the only one, the only one mind, that said I was right to come over here and find you. She didn’t want me to go. Don’t think that. Cried her heart out at the station when I left, so she must love me a little, mustn’t she? Come on, you silly you, say something. That’s the only thing I’ve got against you, Joey, you’re the best listener I’ve ever known, but I never know what the divil you’re thinking. You just blink your eyes and waggle those ears of yours from east to west and south to north. I wish you could talk, Joey, I really do.’

  Then one evening there was terrible news from the front, news that Albert’s friend, David, had been killed, along with the two horses that were hauling the veterinary wagon that day. ‘A stray shell,’ Albert told me as he brought in the straw for my stable. ‘That’s what they said it was – one stray shell out of nowhere and he’s gone. I shall miss him, Joey. We shall both miss him won’t we?’ And he sat down in the straw in the corner of the stable. ‘You know what he was, Joey, before the war? He had a fruit cart in London, outside Covent Garden. Thought the world of you, Joey. Told me so often enough. And he looked after me, Joey. Like a brother he was to me. Twenty years old. He’d his whole life ahead of him. All wasted now ’cos of one stray shell. He always told me, Joey. He’d say, “At least if I goes there’ll be no one that’ll miss me. Only me cart – and I can’t take that with me, more’s the pity.” He was proud of his cart, showed me a photo of himself once stood by it. All painted it was and piled high with fruit and him standing there with a smile like a banana spread all across his face.’ He looked up at me and brushed the tears from his cheeks. He spoke now through gritted teeth. ‘There’s just you and me left now, Joey, and I tell you we’re going to get home, both of us. I’m going to ring that tenor bell again in the Church, I’m going to eat my Maisie’s bread and pasties and I’m going to ride you down by the river again. David always said he was somehow sure that I’d get home, and he was right. I’m going to make him right.’

  When the end of the war did come, it came swiftly, almost unexpectedly it seemed to the men around me. There was little joy, little celebration of victory, only a sense of profound relief that at last it was finished and done with. Albert left the happy cluster of men gathered together in the yard that cold November morning and strolled over to talk to me. ‘Five minutes time and it’ll be finished, Joey, all over. Jerry’s had about enough of it, and so have we. No one really wants to go on any more. At eleven o’clock the guns will stop and then that will be that. Only wish that David could have been here to see it.’

  Since David’s death Albert had not been himself. I had not once seen him smile or joke, and he often fell into prolonged brooding silences when he was with me. There was no more singing, no more whistling. I tried all that I could to comfort him, resting my head on his shoulder and nickering gently to him, but he seemed quite inconsolable. Even the news that the war was finally ending brought no light back to his eyes. The bell in the clock tower over the gateway rang out eleven times, and the men shook each other solemnly by the hand or clapped each other on the back before returning to the stables.

  The fruits of victory were to prove bitter indeed for me, but to begin with the end of the war changed little. The veterinary hospital operated as it always had done, and the flow of sick and injured horses seemed rather to increase than to diminish. From the yard gate we saw the unending columns of fighting men marching jauntily back to the railway stations, and we looked on as the tanks and guns and wagons rolled by on their way home. But we were left where we were. Like the other men, Albert was becoming impatient. Like them he wanted only to get back home as quickly as possible.

  Morning parade took place as usual every morning in the centre of the cobbled yard, followed by Major Martin’s inspection of the horses and stables. But one dreary, drizzling morning, with the wet cobbles shining grey in the early morning light, Major Martin did not inspect the stables as usual. Sergeant Thunder stood the men at ease and Major Martin announced the re-embarkation plans for the unit. He was finishing his short speech; ‘So we shall be at Victoria station by six o’clock on Saturday evening – with a
ny luck. Chances are you’ll all be home by Christmas.’

  ‘Permission to speak, sir?’ Sergeant Thunder ventured.

  ‘Carry on, Sergeant.’

  ‘It’s about the ’orses, sir,’ Sergeant Thunder said. ‘I think the men would like to know what’s going to ’appen with the ’orses. Will they be with us on the same ship, sir? Or will they be coming along later?’

  Major Martin shifted his feet and looked down at his boots. He spoke softly as if he did not want to be heard. ‘No, Sergeant,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid the horses won’t be coming with us at all.’ There was an audible muttering of protest from the parading soldiers.

  ‘You mean, sir,’ said the Sergeant. ‘You mean that they’ll be coming on on a later ship?’

  ‘No, Sergeant,’ said the Major, slapping his side with his swagger stick, ‘I don’t mean that. I mean exactly what I said. I mean they will not be coming with us at all. The horses will be staying in France.’

  ‘’Ere, sir?’ said the sergeant. ‘But ’ow can they sir? Who’ll be looking after them? We’ve got cases ’ere that need attention all day and every day.’

  The major nodded, his eyes still looking at the ground. ‘You’ll not like what I have to tell you,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid a decision has been taken to sell off many of the army’s horses here in France. All the horses we have here are either sick or have been sick. It’s not considered worthwhile to transport them back home. My orders are to hold a horse sale here in this court-yard tomorrow morning. A notice has been posted in neighbouring towns to that effect. They are to be sold by auction.’

  ‘Auctioned off, sir? Our ’orses to be put under the ’ammer, after all they’ve been through?’ The sergeant spoke politely, but only just. ‘But you know what that means, sir? You know what will ’appen?’

  ‘Yes, Sergeant,’ said Major Martin. ‘I know what will happen to them. But there’s nothing anyone can do. We’re in the army, Sergeant, and I don’t have to remind you that orders are orders.’

  ‘But you know what they’ll go for,’ said Sergeant Thunder, barely disguising the disgust in his voice. ‘There’s thousands of our ’orses out ’ere in France, sir. War veterans they are. D’you mean to say that after all they’ve been through, after all we’ve done lookin’ after ’em, after all you’ve done, sir – that they’re to end up like that? I can’t believe they mean it, sir.’

  ‘Well, I’m afraid they do,’ said the major stiffly. ‘Some of them may end up as you suggest – I can’t deny it, Sergeant. You’ve every right to be indignant, every right. I’m not too happy about it myself, as you can imagine. But by tomorrow most of these horses will have been sold off, and we shall be moving out ourselves the day after. And you know, Sergeant, and I know, there’s not a blind thing I can do about it.’

  Albert’s voice rang out across the yard. ‘What, all of them, sir? Every one of them? Even Joey that we brought back from the dead? Even him?’

  Major Martin said nothing, but turned on his heel and walked away.


  THERE WAS AN air of determined conspiracy abroad in the yard that day. Whispering groups of men in dripping greatcoats, their collars turned up to keep the rain from their necks, huddled together, their voices low and earnest. Albert seemed scarcely to notice me all day. He would neither talk to me nor even look at me but hurried through the daily routine of mucking out, haying up and grooming, in a deep and gloomy silence. I knew, as every horse in the yard knew, that we were threatened. I was torn with anxiety.

  An ominous shadow had fallen on the yard that morning and not one of us could settle in our stables. When we were led out for exercise, we were jumpy and skittish and Albert, like the other soldiers, responded with impatience, jerking sharply at my halter, something I had never known him do before.

  That evening the men were still talking but now Sergeant Thunder was with them and they all stood together in the darkening yard. I could just see in the last of the evening light the glint of money in their hands. Sergeant Thunder carried a small tin box which was being passed around from one to the other and I heard the clink of coins as they were dropped in. The rain had stopped now and it was a still evening so that I could just make out Sergeant Thunder’s low, growling voice. ‘That’s the best we can do, lads,’ he was saying. ‘It’s not a lot, but then we ’aven’t got a lot, ’ave we? No one ever gets rich in this man’s army. I’ll do the bidding like I said – it’s against orders, but I’ll do it. Mind you, I’m not promising anything.’ He paused and looked over his shoulder before going on. ‘I’m not supposed to tell you this – the Major said not to – and make no mistake, I’m not in the ’abit of disobeying officers’ orders. But we aren’t at war any more, and anyway this order was more like advice, so to speak. So I’m telling you this ’cos I wouldn’t like you to think badly of the major. ’E knows what’s going on right enough. Matter of fact the ’ole thing was ’is own idea. It was ’im that told me to suggest it to you in the first place. What’s more, lads, ’e ’s given us every penny of ’is pay that ’e ’ad saved up – every penny. It’s not much but it’ll ’elp. ’Course I don’t ’ave to tell you that no one says a word about this, not a dicky bird. If this was to get about, then ’e goes for the ’igh jump, like all of us would. So mum’s the word, clear?’

  ‘Have you got enough, Sarge?’ I could hear that it was Albert’s voice speaking.

  ‘I’m ’oping so, son,’ Sergeant Thunder said, shaking the tin. ‘I’m ’oping so. Now let’s all of us get some shut-eye. I want you layabouts up bright and early in the morning and them ’orses looking their thundering best. It’s the last thing we’ll be doing for ’em, least we can do for ’em seems to me.’

  And so the group dispersed, the men walking away in twos and threes, shoulders hunched against the cold, their hands deep in their greatcoat pockets. One man only was left standing by himself in the yard. He stood for a moment looking up at the sky before walking over towards my stable. I could tell it was Albert from the way he walked – it was that rolling farmer’s gait with the knees never quite straightening up after each stride. He pushed back his peaked cap as he leant over the stable door. ‘I’ve done all I can, Joey,’ he said. ‘We all have. I can’t tell you any more ’cos I know you’d understand every word I said, and then you’d only worry yourself sick with it. This time, Joey, I can’t even make you a promise like I did when Father sold you off to the army. I can’t make you a promise ’cos I don’t know whether I can keep it. I asked old Thunder to help and he helped. I asked the major to help and he helped. And now I’ve just asked God, ’cos when all’s said and done, it’s all up to Him. We’ve done all we can, that’s for certain sure. I remember old Miss Wirtle telling me in Sunday School back home once: “God helps those that helps themselves”. Mean old divil she was, but she knew her scriptures right enough. God bless you, Joey. Sleep tight.’ And he put out his clenched fist and rubbed my muzzle, and then stroked each of my ears in turn before leaving me alone in the dark of the stables. It was the first time he had talked to me like that since the day David had been reported killed, and it warmed my heart just to listen to him.

  The day dawned bright over the clock tower, throwing the long, lean shadows of the poplars beyond across the cobbles that glistened with frost. Albert was up with the others before reveille was blown, so that by the time the first buyers arrived in the yard in their carts and cars, I was fed and watered and groomed so hard that my winter coat gleamed red as I was led out into the morning sun.

  The buyers were gathered in the middle of the yard, and we were led, all those that could walk, around the perimeter of the yard in a grand parade, before being brought out one by one to face the auctioneer and the buyers. I found myself waiting in my stable watching every horse in the yard being sold ahead of me. I was, it seemed, to be the last to be brought out. Distant echoes of an earlier auction sent me suddenly into a feverish sweat, but I forced myself to remember Albert’s reassuring words of the ni
ght before, and in time my heart stopped racing. So when Albert led me out into the yard I was calm and easy in my stride. I had unswerving faith in him as he patted my neck gently and whispered secretly in my ear. There were audible and visible signs of approval from the buyers as he walked me round in a tight circle, bringing me at last to a standstill facing a line of red, craggy faces and grasping, greedy eyes. Then I noticed in amongst the shabby coats and hats of the buyers, the still, tall figure of Sergeant Thunder towering above them, and to one side the entire veterinary unit lined up along the wall and watching the proceedings anxiously. The bidding began.

  I was clearly much in demand for the bidding was swift to start with, but as the price rose I could see more heads shaking and very soon there seemed to be only two bidders left. One was old Thunder himself, who would touch the corner of his cap with his stick, almost like a salute, to make his bid; and the other was a thin, wiry little man with weasel eyes who wore on his face a smile so full of consummate greed and evil that I could hardly bear to look at him. Still the price moved up. ‘At twenty-five, twenty-six. At twenty-seven. Twenty-seven I’m bid. On my right. Twenty-seven I’m bid. Any more please? It’s against the sergeant there, at twenty-seven. Any more please? He’s a fine young animal, as you see. Got to be worth a lot more than this. Any more please?’ But the sergeant was shaking his head now, his eyes looked down and acknowledged defeat.

  ‘Oh God, no,’ I heard Albert whisper beside me. ‘Dear God, not him. He’s one of them, Joey. He’s been buying all morning. Old Thunder says he’s the butcher from Cambrai. Please God, no.’

  ‘Well then, if there are no more bids, I’m selling to Monsieur Cirac of Cambrai at twenty-seven English pounds. Is that all? Selling then for twenty-seven. Going, going . . .’

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