War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

  As we came out of the wood and onto the road below we were halted by our escort. Captain Stewart and Trooper Warren were marched away down the road towards a cluster of ruined buildings that must at one time have been a village, whilst Topthorn and I were led away across the fields and further down the valley. There was no time for long farewells – just a brief last stroke of the muzzle for each of us and they were gone. As they walked away, Captain Stewart had his arm around Trooper Warren’s shoulder.


  WE WERE LED away by two nervous soldiers down farm tracks, through orchards and across a bridge before being tied up beside a hospital tent some miles from where we had been captured. A knot of wounded soldiers gathered around us at once. They patted and stroked us and I began to whisk my tail with impatience. I was hungry and thirsty and angry that I had been separated from my Trooper Warren.

  Still no one seemed to know quite what to do with us until an officer in a long grey coat with a bandage round his head emerged from the tent. He was an immensely tall man standing a full head higher than anyone around him. The manner of his gait and the way he held himself indicated a man clearly accustomed to wielding authority. A bandage came down over one eye so that he had only half a face visible. As he walked towards us I saw that he was limping, that one foot was heavily bandaged and that he needed the support of a stick. The soldiers sprang back at his approach and stood stiffly to attention. He looked us both over in undisguised admiration, shaking his head and sighing as he did so. Then he turned to the men. ‘There are hundreds like these dead out on our wire. I tell you, if we had had one jot of the courage of these animals we should be in Paris by now and not slugging it out here in the mud. These two horses came through hell-fire to get here – they were the only two to make it. It was not their fault they were sent on a fool’s errand. They are not circus animals, they are heroes, do you understand, heroes, and they should be treated as such. And you stand around and gawp at them. You are none of you badly wounded and the doctor is far too busy to see you at present. So, I want these horses unsaddled, rubbed down, fed and watered at once. They will need oats and hay, and a blanket for each of them, now get moving.’

  The soldiers hurried away, scattering in all directions, and within a few minutes Topthorn and I were being lavished with all manner of clumsy kindness. None of them had handled a horse before it seemed, but that did not matter to us so grateful were we for all the fodder they brought us and the water. We lacked for nothing that morning, and all the time the tall officer supervised from under the trees, leaning on his stick. From time to time he would come up to us and run his hand along our backs and over our quarters, nodding his approval and lecturing his men on the finer points of horse breeding as he examined us. After a time he was joined by a man in a white coat who emerged from the tent, his hair dishevelled, his face pale with exhaustion. There was blood on his coat.

  ‘Headquarters phoned through about the horses, Herr Hauptmann,’ said the man in white. ‘And they say I am to keep them for the stretcher cases. I know your views on the matter Hauptmann, but I’m afraid you cannot have them. We need them here desperately, and the way things are going I fear we will need more. That was just the first attack – there will be more to come. We expect a sustained offensive – it will be a long battle. We are the same on both sides, once we start something we seem to have to prove a point and that takes time and lives. We’ll need all the ambulance transport we can get, motorised or horse.’

  The tall officer drew himself up to his full height, and bristled with indignation. He was a formidable sight as he advanced on the man in white. ‘Doctor, you cannot put fine British cavalry horses to pulling carts! Any of our horse regiments, my own Regiment of Lancers indeed, would be proud, indeed overwhelmed to have such splendid creatures in their ranks. You cannot do it, Doctor, I will not permit it.’

  ‘Herr Hauptmann,’ said the doctor patiently – he was clearly not at all intimidated. ‘Do you really imagine that after this morning’s madness that either side will be using cavalry again in this war? Can you not understand that we need transport, Herr Hauptmann? And we need it now. There are men, brave men, German and English lying out there on stretchers in the trenches and at present there’s not enough transport to bring them back to the hospital here. Now do you want them all to die, Herr Hauptmann? Tell me that. Do you want them to die? If these horses could be hitched up to a cart they could bring them back in their dozens. We just do not have enough ambulances to cope, and what we do have break down or get stuck in the mud. Please, Herr Hauptmann. We need your help.’

  ‘The world,’ said the German officer, shaking his head, ‘the world has gone quite mad. When noble creatures such as these are forced to become beasts of burden, the world has gone mad. But I can see that you are right. I am a lancer, Herr Doctor, but even I know that men are more important than horses. But you must see to it that you have someone in charge of these two who knows horses – I don’t want any dirty-fingered mechanic getting his hands on these two. And you must tell them that they are riding horses. They won’t take kindly to pulling carts, no matter how noble the cause.’

  ‘Thank you, Herr Hauptmann,’ said the doctor. ‘You are most kind, but I have a problem, Herr Hauptmann. As I am sure you will agree, they will need an expert to manage them to start with, particularly if they have never been put in a cart before. The problem is that I have only medical orderlies here. True, one of them has worked horses on a farm before the war; but to tell you the truth, Herr Hauptmann, I have no one who could manage these two – no one that is except you. You are due to go to Base Hospital on the next convoy of ambulances, but they won’t be here before this evening. I know it’s a lot to ask of a wounded man, but you can see how desperate I am. The farmer down below has several carts, and I should imagine all the harness you would need. What do you say, Herr Hauptmann? Can you help me?’

  The bandaged officer limped back towards us and stroked our noses tenderly. Then he smiled and nodded. ‘Very well. It’s a sacrilege, Doctor, a sacrilege,’ he said. ‘But if it’s got to be done, then I’d rather do it myself and see it is done properly.’

  So that same afternoon after our capture, Topthorn and I were hitched up side by side to an old hay cart and with the officer directing two orderlies, we were driven up through the woods back towards the thunder of the gunfire and the wounded that awaited us. Topthorn was all the time in a great state of alarm for it was clear he had never pulled before in his life; and at last I was able in my turn to help him, to lead, to compensate and to reassure him. The officer led us at first, limping along beside me with his stick, but he was soon confident enough to mount the cart with the two orderlies and take the reins. ‘You’ve done a bit of this before, my friend,’ he said. ‘I can tell that. I always knew the British were mad. Now I know that they use horses such as you as cart-horses, I am quite sure of it. That’s what this war is all about, my friend. It’s about which of us is the madder. And clearly you British started with an advantage. You were mad beforehand.’

  All that afternoon and evening while the battle raged we trudged up to the lines, loaded up with the stretcher cases and brought them back to the Field Hospital. It was several miles each way over roads and tracks filled with shell holes and littered with the corpses of mules and men. The artillery barrage from both sides was continuous. It roared overhead all day as the armies hurled their men at each other across no man’s land, and the wounded that could walk poured back along the roads. I had seen the same grey faces looking out from under their helmets somewhere before. All that was different were the uniforms – they were grey now with red piping, and the helmets were no longer round with a broad brim.

  It was almost night before the tall officer left us, waving goodbye to us and to the doctor from the back of the ambulance as it bumped its way across the field and out of sight. The doctor turned to the orderlies who had been with us all day. ‘See to it that they are well cared for, those two,’ he sai
d. ‘They saved good lives today, those two – good German lives and good English lives. They deserve the best of care. See to it that they have it.’

  For the first time that night since we came to the war, Topthorn and I had the luxury of a stable. The shed in the farm that lay across the fields from the hospital was emptied of pigs and poultry and we were led in to find a rack brimming full with sweet hay and buckets of soothing, cold water.

  That night after we had finished our hay, Topthorn and I were lying down together at the back of the shed. I was half awake and could think only of my aching muscles and sore feet. Suddenly the door creaked open and the stable filled with a flickering orange light. Behind the light there were footsteps. We looked up and I was seized at that moment with a kind of panic. For a fleeting moment I imagined myself back at home in the stable with old Zoey. The dancing light triggered off an alarm in me, reminding me at once of Albert’s father. I was on my feet in an instant and backing away from the light with Topthorn beside me, protecting me. However, when the voice spoke it was not the rasping, drunken voice of Albert’s father, but rather a soft, gentle tone of a girl’s voice, a young girl. I could see now that there were two people behind the light, an old man, a bent old man in rough clothes and clogs, and beside him stood a young girl, her head and shoulders wrapped in a shawl.

  ‘There you are, Grandpapa,’ she said. ‘I told you they put them in here. Have you ever seen anything so beautiful? Oh can they be mine, Grandpapa? Please can they be mine?’


  IF IT IS possible to be happy in the middle of a nightmare, then Topthorn and I were happy that summer. Every day we had to make the same hazardous journeys up to the front line which in spite of almost continuous offensives and counter-offensives moved only a matter of a few hundred yards in either direction. Hauling our ambulance cart of dying and wounded back from the trenches we became a familiar sight along the pitted track. More than once we were cheered by marching soldiers as they passed us. Once, after we had plodded on, too tired to be fearful, through a devastating barrage that straddled the road in front of us and behind us, one of the soldiers with his tunic covered in blood and mud, came and stood by my head and threw his good arm around my neck and kissed me.

  ‘Thank you, my friend,’ he said. ‘I never thought they would get us out of that hell-hole. I found this yesterday, and thought about keeping it for myself, but I know where it belongs.’ And he reached up and hung a muddied ribbon around my neck. There was an Iron Cross dangling on the end of it. ‘You’ll have to share it with your friend,’ he said. ‘They tell me you’re both English. I bet you are the first English in this war to win an Iron Cross, and the last I shouldn’t wonder.’ The waiting wounded outside the hospital tent clapped and cheered us to the echo, bringing doctors, nurses and patients running out of the tent to see what there could be to clap about in the midst of all this misery.

  They hung our Iron Cross on a nail outside our stable door and on the rare quiet days, when the shelling stopped and we were not needed to make the journey up to the front, a few of the walking wounded would wander down from the hospital to the farmyard to visit us. I was puzzled by this adulation but loved it, thrusting my head over the high stable door whenever I heard them coming into the yard. Side by side Topthorn and I would stand at the door to receive our unlimited ration of compliments and adoration – and of course this was sometimes accompanied by a welcome gift of perhaps a lump of sugar or an apple.

  But it was the evenings of that summer that stay so strong in my memory. Often it would not be until dusk that we would clatter into the yard; and there, always waiting by the stable door would be the little girl and her grandfather who had come to us that first evening. The orderlies simply handed us over into their charge – and that was just as well, for kind as they were they had no notion about horses. It was little Emilie and her grandfather who insisted that they should look after us. They rubbed us down and saw to our sores and bruises. They fed us, watered us and groomed us and somehow always found enough straw for a dry warm bed. Emilie made us each a fringe to tie over our eyes to keep the flies from bothering us, and in the warm summer evenings she would lead us out to graze in the meadow below the farmhouse and stayed with us watching us grazing until her grandfather called us in again.

  She was a tiny, frail creature, but led us about the farm with complete confidence, chatting all the while about what she had been doing all the day and about how brave we were and how proud she was of us.

  As winter came on again and the grass lost its flavour and goodness, she would climb up into the loft above the stable and throw down our hay for us, and she would lie down on the loft floor looking at us through the trapdoor while we pulled the hay from the rack and ate it. Then with her grandfather busying himself about us she would prattle on merrily about how when she was older and stronger and when the soldiers had all gone home and the war was over she would ride us herself through the woods – one at a time, she said – and how we would never want for anything if only we would stay with her for ever.

  Topthorn and I were by now seasoned campaigners, and it may well have been that that drove us on out through the roar of the shell-fire back towards the trenches each morning, but there was more to it than that. For us it was the hope that we would be back that evening in our stable and that little Emilie would be there to comfort and to love us. We had that to look forward to and to long for. Any horse has an instinctive fondness for children for they speak more softly, and their size precludes any threat; but Emilie was a special child for us, for she spent every minute she could with us and lavished us with her affection. She would be up late every evening with us rubbing us down and seeing to our feet, and be up again at dawn to see us fed properly before the orderlies led us away and hitched us up to the ambulance cart. She would climb the wall by the pond and stand there waving, and although I could never turn round, I knew she would stay there until the road took us out of sight. And then she would be there when we came back in the evening, clasping her hands in excitement as she watched us being unhitched.

  But one evening at the onset of winter she was not there to greet us as usual. We had been worked even harder that day than usual, for the first snows of winter had blocked the road up to the trenches to all but the horse-drawn vehicles and we had to make twice the number of trips to bring in the wounded. Exhausted, hungry and thirsty we were led into our stable by Emilie’s grandfather, who said not a word but saw to us quickly before hurrying back across the yard to the house. Topthorn and I spent that evening by the stable door watching the gentle fall of snow and the flickering light in the farmhouse. We knew something was wrong before the old man came back and told us.

  He came late at night, his feet crumping the snow. He had made up the buckets of hot mash we had come to expect and he sat down on the straw beneath the lantern and watched us eat. ‘She prays for you,’ he said, nodding slowly. ‘Do you know, every night before she goes to bed she prays for you? I’ve heard her. She prays for her dead father and mother – they were killed only a week after the war began. One shell, that’s all it takes. And she prays for her brother that she’ll never see again – just seventeen and he doesn’t even have a grave. It’s as if he never lived except in our minds. Then she prays for me and for the war to pass by the farm and to leave us alone, and last of all she prays for you two. She prays for two things: first that you both survive the war and live on into ripe old age, and secondly that if you do she dearly wants to be there to be with you. She’s barely thirteen, my Emilie, and now she’s lying up there in her room and I don’t know if she’ll live to see the morning. The German doctor from the hospital tells me it’s pneumonia. He’s a good enough doctor even if he is German – he’s done his best, it’s up to God now, and so far God hasn’t done too well for my family. If she goes, if my Emilie dies, then the only light left in my life will be put out.’ He looked up at us through heavily wrinkled eyes and wiped the tears from his face. ‘If you
can understand anything of what I said, then pray for her to whatever Horse God you pray to, pray for her like she does for you.’

  There was heavy shelling all that night, and before dawn the next day the orderlies came for us and led us out into the snow to be hitched up. There was no sign of Emilie nor her grandfather. Pulling the cart through the fresh, uncut snow that morning, Topthorn and I needed all our strength just to haul the empty cart up to the front line. The snow disguised perfectly the ruts and shell holes, so that we found ourselves straining to extricate ourselves from the piled-up snow and the sinking mud beneath it.

  We made it to the front line, but only with the help of the two orderlies, who jumped out whenever we were in difficulties and turned the wheels over by hand until we were free again and the cart could gather momentum through the snow once more.

  The field dressing station behind the front line was crowded with wounded and we had to bring back a heavier load than we ever had before, but fortunately the way back was mostly downhill. Someone suddenly remembered it was Christmas morning, and they sang slow tuneful carols all the way back. For the most part they were casualties blinded by gas and in their pain some of them cried, as they sang, for their lost sight. We made so many journeys that day and stopped only when the hospital could take no more.

  It was already a starry night by the time we reached the farm. The shelling had stopped. There were no flares to light up the sky and blot out the stars. All the way along the lane not a gun fired. Peace had come for one night, one at least. The snow in the yard was crisped by the frost. There was a dancing light in our stable and Emilie’s grandfather came out into the snow and took our reins from the orderly.

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