War Horse by Michael Morpurgo


  SO TOPTHORN CAME into that spring weakened severely by his illness and still with a husky cough, but he had survived. We had both survived. There was hard ground to go on now, and the grass grew once more in the fields so that out bodies began to fill out again, and our coats lost their winter raggedness and shone in the sun. The sun shone too on the soldiers, whose uniforms of grey and red stayed cleaner. They shaved more often now, and they began as they always did every spring to talk of the end of the war and about home and about how the next attack would finish it and how they would see their families again soon. They were happier and so they treated us that much better. The rations improved too with the weather and our gun-team stepped out with a new enthusiasm and purpose. The sores disappeared from our legs and we had full bellies each day, all the grass we could eat and oats in plenty.

  The two little Haflingers puffed and snorted behind us, and they shamed Topthorn and me into a gallop – something we had not been able to achieve all winter no matter how hard our riders tried to whip us on. Our new-found health and the optimism of the singing, whistling soldiers brought us to a fresh sense of exhilaration as we rolled our guns along the pitted roads into position.

  But there were to be no battles for us that summer. There was always sporadic firing and shelling but the armies seemed content to growl at each other and threaten without ever coming to grips. Further away of course we heard the renewed fury of the spring offensive up and down the line, but we were not needed to move our guns and spent that summer in comparative peace some way behind the lines. Idleness, even boredom set in as we grazed the lush buttercup meadows and we even became fat for the first time since we came to war. Perhaps it was because we became too fat that Topthorn and I were chosen to pull the ammunition cart from the railhead some miles away up to the artillery lines, and so we found ourselves under the command of the kind old soldier who had been so good to us all winter.

  Everyone called him mad old Friedrich. He was thought to be mad because he talked continuously to himself and even when he was not talking he was laughing and chortling at some private joke that he never shared with anyone. Mad old Friedrich was the old soldier they set to work on tasks no one else wanted to do because he was always obliging and everyone knew it.

  In the heat and the dust it was tedious and strenuous work that quickly took off our excess weight and began to sap our strength once more. The cart was always too heavy for us to pull because they insisted at the railhead on filling it up with as many shells as possible in spite of Friedrich’s protestations. They simply laughed at him, ignored him and piled on the shells. On the way back to the artillery lines Friedrich would always walk up the hills, leading us slowly for he knew how heavy the wagon must have been. We stopped often for rests and for water and he made quite sure that we had more food than the other horses who were resting all that summer.

  We came to look forward now to each morning when Friedrich would come to fetch us in from the field, put on our harness and we would leave the noise and the bustle of the camp behind us. We soon discovered that Friedrich was not in the slightest bit mad, but simply a kind and gentle man whose whole nature cried out against fighting a war. He confessed to us as we plodded along the road to the railhead that he longed only to be back in his butcher’s shop in Schleiden, and that he talked to himself because he felt that he was the only one who understood himself or would even listen to what he was saying. He laughed to himself he said because if he did not laugh he would cry.

  ‘I tell you, my friends,’ he said one day. ‘I tell you that I am the only sane man in the regiment. It’s the others that are mad, but they don’t know it. They fight a war and they don’t know what for. Isn’t that crazy? How can one man kill another and not really know the reason why he does it, except that the other man wears a different colour uniform and speaks a different language? And it’s me they call mad! You two are the only rational creatures I’ve met in this benighted war, and like me the only reason you’re here is because you were brought here. If I had the courage – and I haven’t – we’d take off down this road and never come back. But then they’d shoot me when they caught me and my wife and my children and my mother and my father would have the shame of it on them for ever. As it is, I’m going to live out this war as “mad old Friedrich”, so that I can return again to Schleiden and become Butcher Friedrich that everyone knew and respected before all this mess began.’

  As the weeks passed it became apparent that Friedrich took a particular liking to Topthorn. Knowing he had been ill he took more time and care over him, attending to the slightest sore before it could develop and make life uncomfortable for Topthorn. He was kind to me as well, but I think he never had the same affection for me. It was noticeable that he would often stand back and simply gaze at Topthorn with love and glowing admiration in his eyes. There seemed to be an empathy between them, that of one old soldier to another.

  The summer passed slowly into autumn and it became clear that our time with Friedrich was coming to an end. Such was Friedrich’s attachment to Topthorn by now that he volunteered to ride him out on the gun team exercises that were to precede the autumn campaign. Of course all the gunners laughed at the suggestion but they were always short of good horsemen – and no one denied he was that – and so we found ourselves the leading pair once again with mad old Friedrich riding up on Topthorn. We had found at last a true friend and one we could trust implicitly.

  ‘If I have to die out here away from my home,’ Friedrich confided in Topthorn one day, ‘I would rather die alongside you. But I’ll do my best to see to it that we all get through and get back home – that much I promise you.’


  SO FRIEDRICH RODE with us that autumn day when we went to war again. The gun troop was resting at midday under the welcome shade of a large chestnut wood that covered both banks of a silver glinting river that was full of splashing, laughing men. As we moved in amongst the trees and the guns were unhitched, I saw that the entire wood was crowded with resting soldiers, their helmets, packs and rifles lying beside them. They sat back against the trees smoking, or lay out flat on their backs and slept.

  As we had come to expect, a crowd of them soon came over to fondle the two golden Haflingers, but one young soldier approached Topthorn and stood looking up at him, his face full of open admiration. ‘Now there’s a horse,’ he said, calling his friend over. ‘Come and look at this one, Karl. Have you ever seen a finer looking animal? He has the head of an Arab. You can see the speed of an English thoroughbred in his legs and the strength of a Hanoverian in his back and in his neck. He has the best of everything,’ and he reached up and gently rubbed his fist against Topthorn’s nose.

  ‘Don’t you ever think about anything else except horses, Rudi?’ said his companion, keeping his distance. ‘Three years I’ve known you and not a day goes by without you going on about the wretched creatures. I know you were brought up with them on your farm, but I still can’t understand what it is that you see in them. They are just four legs, a head and a tail, all controlled by a very little brain that can’t think beyond food and drink.’

  ‘How can you say that?’ said Rudi. ‘Just look at him, Karl. Can you not see that he’s something special? This one isn’t just any old horse. There’s a nobility in his eye, a regal serenity about him. Does he not personify all that men try to be and never can be? I tell you, my friend, there’s divinity in a horse, and specially in a horse like this. God got it right the day he created them. And to find a horse like this in the middle of this filthy abomination of a war, is for me like finding a butterfly on a dung heap. We don’t belong in the same universe as a creature like this.’

  To me the soldiers had appeared to become younger as the war went on, and certainly Rudi was no exception to this. Under his short cropped hair that was still damp from wearing his helmet, he looked barely the same age as my Albert as I remembered him. And like so many of them now he looked, without his
helmet, like a child dressed up as a soldier.

  When Friedrich led us down to the river to drink, Rudi and his friend came with us. Topthorn lowered his head into the water beside me and shook it vigorously as he usually did, showering me all over my face and neck, and bringing me sweet relief from the heat. He drank long and deep and afterwards we stood together for a few moments on the river bank watching the soldiers frolicking in the water. The hill back up into the woods was steep and rutty, so it was no surprise that Topthorn stumbled once or twice – he had never been as surefooted as I was – but he regained his balance each time and plodded on beside me up the hill. However I did notice that he was moving rather wearily and sluggishly, that each step as we went up was becoming more and more of an effort for him. His breathing was suddenly short and rasping. Then, as we neared the shade of the trees Topthorn stumbled to his knees and did not get up again. I stopped for a moment to give him time to get up, but he did not. He lay where he was, breathing heavily and lifted his head once to look at me. It was an appeal for help – I could see it in his eyes. Then he slumped forward on his face, rolled over and was quite still. His tongue hung from his mouth and his eyes looked up at me without seeing me. I bent down to nuzzle him, pushing at his neck in a frantic effort to make him move, to make him wake up; but I knew instinctively that he was already dead, that I had lost my best and dearest friend. Friedrich was down on his knees beside him, his ear pressed to Topthorn’s chest. He shook his head as he sat back and looked up at the group of men that had by now gathered around us. ‘He’s dead,’ Friedrich said quietly, and then more angrily, ‘For God’s sake, he’s dead.’ His face was heavy with sadness. ‘Why?’ he said, ‘Why does this war have to destroy anything and everything that’s fine and beautiful?’ He covered his eyes with his hands and Rudi lifted him gently to his feet.

  ‘Nothing you can do, old man,’ he said. ‘He’s well out of it. Come on.’ But old Friedrich would not be led away. I turned once more to Topthorn, still licking and nuzzling him where he lay, although I knew and indeed understood by now the finality of death, but in my grief I felt only that I wanted to stay with him to comfort him.

  The veterinary officer attached to the troop came running down the hill followed by all the officers and men in the troop who had just heard what had happened. After a brief inspection he too pronounced Topthorn to be dead. ‘I thought so. I told you so,’ he said almost to himself. ‘They can’t do it. I see it all the time. Too much work on short rations and living out all winter. I see it all the time. A horse like this can only stand so much. Heart failure, poor fellow. It makes me angry every time it happens. We should not treat horses like this – we treat our machines better.’

  ‘He was a friend,’ said Friedrich simply, kneeling down again over Topthorn and removing his head-collar. The soldiers stood all around us in complete silence looking down at the prostrate form of Topthorn, in a moment of spontaneous respect and sadness. Perhaps it was because they had known him for a long time and he had in some way become part of their lives.

  As we stood silent on the hillside I heard the first whistle of a shell above us and saw the first explosion as the shell landed in the river. Suddenly the wood was alive with shouting, rushing soldiers and the shells were falling around us everywhere. The men in the river, half-naked and screaming, ran up into the trees and the shelling seemed to follow them. Trees crashed to the ground and horses and men came running out of the wood in the direction of the ridge above us.

  My first inclination was to run with them, to run anywhere to escape the shelling; but Topthorn lay dead at my feet and I would not abandon him. Friedrich who was holding me now tried all he could to drag me away up behind the shoulder of the hill, shouting and screaming at me to come if I wanted to live; but no man can move a horse that does not wish to be moved, and I did not want to go. As the shelling intensified and he found himself more and more isolated from his friends as they swarmed away up the hill and out of sight, he threw down my reins and tried to make his escape. But he was too slow and he had left it too late. He never reached the woods. He was struck down only a few paces from Topthorn, rolled back down the hill and lay still beside him. The last I saw of my troop were the bobbing white manes of the two little Haflingers as they struggled to pull the gun up through the trees with the gunners hauling frantically on their reins and straining to push the gun from behind.


  I STOOD BY Topthorn and Friedrich all that day and into the night, leaving them only once to drink briefly at the river. The shelling moved back and forth along the valley, showering grass and earth and trees into the air and leaving behind great craters that smoked as if the earth itself was on fire. But any fear I might have had was overwhelmed by a powerful sense of sadness and love that compelled me to stay with Topthorn for as long as I could. I knew that once I left him I would be alone in the world again, that I would no longer have his strength and support beside me. So I stayed with him and waited.

  I remember it was near first light and I was cropping the grass close to where they lay when I heard through the crump and whistle of the shells the whining sound of motors accompanied by a terrifying rattle of steel that set my ears back against my head. It came from over the ridge from the direction in which the soldiers had disappeared, a grating, roaring sound that came ever nearer by the minute; and louder again as the shelling died away completely.

  Although at the time I did not know it as such, the first tank I ever saw came over the rise of the hill with the cold light of dawn behind it, a great grey lumbering monster that belched out smoke from behind as it rocked down the hillside towards me. I hesitated only for a few moments before blind terror tore me at last from Topthorn’s side and sent me bolting down the hill towards the river. I crashed into the river without even knowing whether I should find my feet or not and was half-way up the wooded hill on the other side before I dared stop and turn to see if it was still chasing me. I should never have looked, for the one monster had become several monsters and they were rolling inexorably down towards me, already past the place where Topthorn lay with Friedrich on the shattered hillside. I waited, secure, I thought, in the shelter of the trees and watched the tanks ford the river before turning once more to run.

  I ran I knew not where. I ran till I could no longer hear that dreadful rattle and until the guns seemed far away. I remember crossing a river again, galloping through empty farmyards, jumping fences and ditches and abandoned trenches, and clattering through deserted, ruined villages before I found myself grazing that evening in a lush, wet meadow and drinking from a clear, pebbly brook. And then exhaustion finally overtook me, sapped the strength from my legs and forced me to lie down and sleep.

  When I woke it was dark and the guns were firing once more all around me. No matter where I looked it seemed, the sky was lit with the yellow flashes of gun-fire and intermittent white glowing lights that pained my eyes and showered daylight briefly on to the countryside around me. Whichever way I went it seemed it had to be towards the guns. Better therefore I thought to stay where I was. Here at least I had grass in plenty and water to drink.

  I had made up my mind to do just that when there was an explosion of white light above my head and the rattle of a machine-gun split the night air, the bullets whipping into the ground beside me. I ran again and kept running into the night, stumbling frequently in the ditches and hedges until the fields lost their grass and the trees were mere stumps against the flashing skyline. Wherever I went now there were great craters in the ground filled with murky, stagnant water.

  It was as I staggered out of one such crater that I lumbered into an invisible coil of barbed wire that first snagged and then trapped my foreleg. As I kicked out wildly to free myself, I felt the barbs tearing into my foreleg before I broke clear. From then on I could manage only to limp on slowly into the night, feeling my way forward. Even so I must have walked for miles, but where to and where from I shall never know. All the while my leg pulsa
ted with pain and on every side of me the great guns were sounding out and rifle-fire spat into the night. Bleeding, bruised and terrified beyond belief, I longed only to be with Topthorn again. He would know which way to go, I told myself. He would know.

  I stumbled on into the night guided only by the belief that where the night was at its blackest there alone I might find some safety from the shelling. Behind me the thunder and lightning of the bombardment was so terrible in its intensity, turning the deep black of night into unnatural day, that I could not contemplate going back even though I knew that it was in the direction that Topthorn lay. There was some gunfire ahead of me and on both sides of me, but I could see away in the distance a black horizon of undisturbed night and so moved on steadily towards it.

  My wounded leg was stiffening up all the time in the cold of the night and it pained me now even to lift it. Very soon I found I could put no weight on it at all. This was to be the longest night of my life, a nightmare of agony, terror and loneliness. I suppose it was only a strong instinct to survive that compelled me to walk on and kept me on my feet. I sensed that my only chance lay in putting the noise of the battle as far behind me as possible, so I had to keep moving. From time to time rifle fire and machine-gun fire would crackle all around me, and I would stand paralysed with fear, terrified to move in any direction until the firing stopped and I found my muscles could move once more.

  To begin with I found the mists hovering only in the depths of the craters I passed, but after some hours I found myself increasingly surrounded in a thick, smoky, autumnal mist through which I could see only the vague shades and shapes of dark and light around me. Almost blinded now I relied totally on the ever more distant roar and rumble of the bombardment, keeping it all the time behind me and moving towards the darker more silent world ahead of me.

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