War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

  ‘It’s a fine night,’ he said to us as he led us in. ‘It’s a fine night and all’s well. There’s mash and hay and water in there for you – I’ve given you extra tonight, not because it’s cold but because you prayed. You must have prayed to that Horse God of yours because my Emilie woke up at lunchtime, sat up she did, and do you know the first thing she said? I’ll tell you. She said, “I must get up, got to get their mash ready for them when they come back. They’ll be cold and tired,” she said. The only way that German doctor could get her to stay in bed was to promise you extra rations tonight, and she made him promise to go on with them as long as the cold weather lasted. So go inside my beauties and eat your fill. We’ve all had a Christmas present today, haven’t we? All’s well, I tell you. All’s well.’


  AND ALL WAS to stay well for a time at least. For the war suddenly moved away from us that spring. We knew it was not over for we could still hear distant thunder of the guns and the troops came marching through the farmyard from time to time up towards the line. But there were fewer wounded now to bring in and we were needed less and less to pull our ambulance cart back and forth from the trenches. Topthorn and I were put out to grass in the meadow by the pond most days, but the evenings were still cold with the occasional frost and our Emilie would always come to get us in before dark. She did not need to lead us. She had but to call and we followed.

  Emilie was still weak from her illness and coughed a great deal as she fussed around us in the stable. From time to time now she would heave herself up on to my back and I would walk so gently around the yard and out into the meadow with Topthorn following close behind. She used no reins on me, no saddle, no bits, no spurs, and sat astride me not as my mistress but rather as a friend. Topthorn was just that much taller and broader than me and she found it very difficult to mount him and even more difficult to get down. Sometimes she would use me as a stepping-stone to Topthorn, but it was a difficult manoeuvre for her and more than once she fell off in the attempt.

  But between Topthorn and me there was never any jealousy and he was quite content to plod around beside us and take her on board whenever she felt like it. One evening we were out in the meadow sheltering under the chestnut tree from the heat of the new summer sun when we heard the sound of an approaching convoy of lorries coming back from the front. As they came through the farm gate they called out to us and we recognised them as the orderlies, nurses and doctors from the field hospital. As the convoy stopped in the yard we galloped over to the gate by the pond and looked over. Emilie and her grandfather emerged from the milking shed and were deep in conversation with the doctor. Quite suddenly we found ourselves besieged by all the orderlies we had come to know so well. They climbed the fence and patted and smoothed us with great affection. They were exuberant yet some-how sad at the same time. Emilie was running over towards us shouting and screaming.

  ‘I knew it would happen,’ she said. ‘I knew it. I prayed for it to happen and it did happen. They don’t need you any more to pull their carts. They’re moving the hospital further up along the valley. There’s a big, big battle going on up there and so they’re moving away from us. But they don’t want to take you with them. That kind doctor has told Grandpapa that you can both stay – it’s a kind of payment for the cart they used and the food they took and because we looked after you throughout all the winter. He says you can stay and work on the farm until the army needs you again – and they never will, and if they ever did I’d hide you. We’ll never let them take you away, will we, Grandpapa? Never, never.’

  And so after the long, sad farewells the convoy moved away up the road in a cloud of dust and we were left alone and in peace with Emilie and her grand-father. The peace was to prove sweet but short-lived.

  To my great delight I found myself once more a farm horse. With Topthorn harnessed up beside me we set to work the very next day cutting and turning the hay. When Emilie protested, after that first long day in the fields, that her grandfather was working us too hard, he put his hands on her shoulders and said, ‘Nonsense Emilie. They like to work. They need to work. And besides the only way for us to go on living, Emilie, is to go on like we did before. The soldiers have gone now so if we pretend hard enough then maybe the war will go away altogether. We must live as we have always lived, cutting our hay, picking our apples and tilling our soil. We cannot live as if there will be no tomorrow. We can live only if we eat, and our food comes from the land. We must work the land if we want to live and these two must work it with us. They don’t mind, they like the work. Look at them, Emilie, do they look unhappy?’

  For Topthorn the transition from pulling an ambulance cart to pulling a hay turner was not a difficult one and he adapted easily; and for me it was a dream I had dreamed many times since I had left the farm in Devon. I was working once more with happy, laughing people around me who cared for me. We pulled with a will that harvest, Topthorn and I, hauling in the heavy hay wagons to the barns where Emilie and her grandfather would unload. And Emilie continued to watch over us lovingly – every scratch and bruise was tended to at once and her grandfather was never allowed to work us for too long however much he argued. But the return to the peaceful life of a farm horse could not last long, not in the middle of that war.

  The hay was almost all gathered in when the soldiers came back again one evening. We were in our stables when we heard the sound of approaching hoofbeats and the rumbling of wheels on the cobble-stones as the column came trotting into the yard. The horses, six at a time, were yoked to great heavy guns, and they stood in their traces puffing and blowing with exertion. Each pair was ridden by men whose faces were severe and hard under their grey caps. I noticed at once that these were not the gentle orderlies that had left us only a few short weeks before. Their faces were strange and harsh and there was a new alarm and urgency in their eyes. Few of them seemed to laugh or even smile. These were a different breed of men from those we had seen before. Only one old soldier who drove the ammunition cart came over to stroke us and spoke kindly to little Emilie.

  After a brief consultation with Emilie’s grandfather the artillery troop bivouacked in our meadow that night, watering the horses in our pond. Topthorn and I were excited by the arrival of new horses and spent all evening with our heads over the stable door neighing to them, but most of them seemed too tired to reply. Emilie came to tell us about the soldiers that evening and we could see she was worried for she would talk only a whisper.

  ‘Grandpapa doesn’t like them here,’ she said. ‘He doesn’t trust the officer, says he’s got eyes like a wasp and you can’t trust a wasp. But they’ll be gone in the morning, then we’ll be on our own again.’

  Early that next morning, as the dark of night left the sky, a visitor came to our stables. It was a pale, thin man in dusty uniform who peered over the door to inspect us. He had eyes that stood out of his face in a permanent stare and he wore a pair of wire-framed spectacles through which he watched us intently, nodding as he did so. He stood a few minutes and then left.

  By full light the artillery troop was drawn up in the yard and ready to move, there was a loud and incessant knocking on the farmhouse door and we saw Emilie and her grandfather come out into the yard still dressed in their night-clothes. ‘Your horses, Monsieur,’ the bespectacled officer announced baldly, ‘I shall be taking your horses with us. I have one team with only four horses and I need two more. They look fine, strong animals and they will learn quickly. We will be taking them with us.’

  ‘But how can I work my farm without horses?’ Emilie’s grandfather said. ‘They are just farm horses, they won’t be able to pull guns.’

  ‘Sir,’ said the officer, ‘there is a war on and I have to have horses for my guns. I have to take them. What you do on your farm is your own business, but I must have the horses. The army needs them.’

  ‘But you can’t,’ Emilie cried. ‘They’re my horses. You can’t take them. Don’t let them, Grandpapa, don’t let them
, please don’t let them.’

  The old man shrugged his shoulders sadly. ‘My child,’ he said quietly. ‘What can I do? How could I stop them? Do you suggest I cut them to pieces with my scythe, or lay about them with my axe? No my child, we knew it might happen one day, didn’t we? We talked about it often enough, didn’t we? We knew they would go one day. Now I want no tears in front of these people. You’re to be proud and strong like your brother was and I’ll not have you weaken in front of them. Go and say your good-byes to the horses, Emilie, and be brave.’

  Little Emilie led us to the back of the stable and slipped our halters on, carefully arranging our manes so that they were not snagged by the rope. Then she reached up and put her arms about us, leaning her head into each of us in turn and crying softly. ‘Come back,’ she said. ‘Please come back to me. I shall die if you don’t come back.’ She wiped her eyes and pushed back her hair before opening the stable door and leading us out into the yard. She walked us directly towards the officer and handed over the reins. ‘I want them back,’ she said, her voice strong now, almost fierce. ‘I’m just lending them to you. They are my horses. They belong here. Feed them well and look after them and make sure you bring them back.’ And she walked past her grandfather and into the house without even turning round.

  As we left the farm, hauled unwillingly along behind the ammunition cart, I turned and saw Emilie’s grandfather still standing in the yard. He was smiling and waving at us through his tears. Then the rope jerked my neck violently around and jolted me into a trot, and I recalled the time once before when I had been roped up to a cart and dragged away against my will. But at least this time I had my Topthorn with me.


  PERHAPS IT WAS the contrast with the few idyllic months we had spent with Emilie and her grandfather that made what followed so harsh and so bitter an experience for Topthorn and me; or perhaps it was just that the war was all the time becoming more terrible. In places now the guns were lined up only a few yards apart for miles and miles and when they sounded out their fury the very earth shook beneath us. The lines of wounded seemed interminable now and the countryside was laid waste for miles behind the trenches.

  The work itself was certainly no harder than when we had been pulling the ambulance cart, but now we were no longer stabled every night, and of course we no longer had the protection of our Emilie to rely on. Suddenly the war was no longer distant. We were back amongst the fearful noise and stench of battle, hauling our gun through the mud, urged on and sometimes whipped on by men who displayed little care or interest in our welfare just so long as we got the guns where they had to go. It was not that they were cruel men, but just that they seemed to be driven now by a fearful compulsion that left no room and no time for pleasantness or consideration either for each other or for us.

  Food was scarcer now. We received our corn ration only spasmodically as winter came on again and there was only a meagre hay ration for each of us. One by one we began to lose weight and condition. At the same time the battles seemed to become more furious and prolonged and we worked longer and harder hours pulling in front of the gun; we were permanently sore and permanently cold. We ended every day covered in a layer of cold, dripping mud that seemed to seep through and chill us to the bones.

  The gun team was a motley collection of six horses. Of the four we joined only one had the height and the strength to pull as a gun horse should, a great hulk of a horse they called Heinie who seemed quite unper-turbed by all that was going on around him. The rest of the team tried to live up to his example, but only Topthorn succeeded. Heinie and Topthorn were the leading pair, and I found myself in the traces behind Topthorn next to a thin, wiry little horse they called Coco. He had a display of white patch-marks over his face that often caused amusement amongst the soldiers as we passed by. But there was nothing funny about Coco – he had the nastiest temper of any horse I had ever met, either before or since. When Coco was eating no one, neither horse nor man, ventured within biting or kicking distance. Behind us was a perfectly matched pair of smaller dun-coloured ponies with flaxen manes and tails. No one could tell them apart, even the soldiers referred to them not by name but merely as ‘the two golden Haflingers’. Because they were pretty and invariably friendly they received much attention and even a little affection from the gunners. They must have been an incongruous but cheering sight to the tired soldiers as we trotted through the ruined villages up to the front. There was no doubt that they worked as hard as the rest of us and that in spite of their diminutive size they were at least our equals in stamina; but in the canter they acted as a brake, slowed us down and spoiled the rhythm of the team.

  Strangely enough it was the giant Heinie who showed the first signs of weakness. The cold sinking mud and the lack of proper fodder through that appalling winter began to shrink his massive frame and reduced him within months to a poor, skinny looking creature. So to my delight – and I must confess it – they moved me up into the leading pair with Topthorn; and Heinie dropped back now to pull alongside little Coco who had begun the ordeal with little strength in reserve. They both went rapidly downhill until the two of them were only any use for pulling on flat, hard surfaces, and since we scarcely ever travelled over such ground they were soon of little use in the team, and made the work for the rest of us that much more arduous.

  Each night we spent in the lines up to our hocks in freezing mud, in conditions far worse than that first winter of the war when Topthorn and I had been cavalry horses. Then each horse had had a trooper who did all he could to care for us and comfort us, but now the efficiency of the gun was the first priority and we came a very poor second. We were mere work horses, and treated as such. The gunners themselves were grey in the face with exhaustion and hunger. Survival was all that mattered to them now. Only the kind old gunner I had noticed that first day when we were taken from the farm seemed to have the time to stay with us. He fed us with hard bits of crumbly black bread and spent more time with us than with his fellow soldiers whom he seemed to avoid all he could. He was an untidy, portly little man who chuckled incessantly and would talk more to himself than to anyone else.

  The effects of continual exposure, under-feeding and hard work were now apparent in all of us. Few of us had any hair growing on our lower legs and the skin below was a mass of cracked sores. Even the rugged little Haflingers began to lose condition. Like all the others I found every step I took now excruciatingly painful particularly in my forelegs which were cracking badly from the knees downwards, and there was not a horse in the team that was not walking lame. The vets treated us as best they could, and even the most hard-hearted of the gunners seemed disturbed as our condition worsened, but there was nothing anyone could do until the mud disappeared.

  The field vets shook their heads in despair, and pulled back those they could for rest and recuperation; but some had deteriorated so much that they were led away and shot there and then after the vet’s inspection. Heinie went that way one morning, and we passed him lying in the mud, a collapsed wreck of a horse; and so eventually did Coco who was hit in his neck by flying shrapnel and had to be destroyed where he lay by the side of the road. No matter how much I disliked him – and he was a vicious beast – it was a piteous and terrible sight to see a fellow creature with whom I had pulled for so long, discarded and forgotten in a ditch.

  The little Haflingers stayed with us all through the winter straining their broad backs and pulling against the traces with all the strength they could muster. They were both gentle and kind, with not a shred of aggression in their courageous souls, and Topthorn and I came to love them dearly. In their turn they looked up to us for support and friendship and we gave both willingly.

  I first noticed that Topthorn was failing when I felt the gun pulling more heavily than before. We were fording a small stream when the wheels of the gun became stuck in the mud. I turned quickly to look at him and saw him suddenly labouring and low in his stride. His eyes told me the pain he was suff
ering and I pulled all the harder to enable him to ease up.

  That night with the rain sheeting down relentlessly on our backs I stood over him as he lay down in the mud. He lay not on his stomach as he always did, but stretched out on his side, lifting his head from time to time as spasms of coughing shook him. He coughed intermittently all night and slept only fitfully. I worried over him, nuzzling him and licking him to try to keep him warm and to reassure him that he was not alone in his pain. I consoled myself with the thought that no horse I had ever seen had the power and stamina of Topthorn and that he must have a reservoir of great strength to fall back on in his sickness.

  And sure enough he was up on his feet the next morning before the gunners came to feed us our ration of corn, and although his head hung lower than usual and he moved only ponderously, I could see that he had the strength to survive if only he could rest.

  I noticed however that when the vet came that day checking along the lines, he looked long and hard at Topthorn and listened carefully to his chest. ‘He’s a strong one,’ I heard him tell the spectacled officer – a man whom no one liked, neither horses nor men. ‘There’s fine breeding here, too fine perhaps Herr Major, could well be his undoing. He’s too fine to pull a gun. I’d pull him out, but you have no horse to take his place, have you? He’ll go on I suppose, but go easy on him, Herr Major. Take the team as slow as you can, else you’ll have no team, and without your team your gun won’t be a lot of use, will it?’

  ‘He will have to do what the others do, Herr Doctor,’ said the major in a steely voice. ‘No more and no less. I cannot make exceptions. If you pass him fit, he’s fit and that’s that.’

  ‘He’s fit to go on,’ said the vet reluctantly. ‘But I am warning you Herr Major. You must take care.’

  ‘We do what we can,’ said the major dismissively. And to be fair they did. It was the mud that was killing us one by one, the mud, the lack of shelter and the lack of food.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]