War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

  Dawn was already brightening the gloom of the mist when I heard the sound of hushed, urgent voices ahead of me. I stood quite still and listened, straining my eyes to find the people to whom they belonged. ‘Stand to, get a move on. Get a move on lads.’ The voices were muffled in the mist. There was a sound of rushing feet and clattering rifles. ‘Pick it up, lad, pick it up. What do you think you’re about? Now clean that rifle off and do it sharpish.’ A long silence followed and I moved gingerly towards the voices, both tempted and terrified at the same time.

  ‘There it is again, Sarge. I saw something, honest I did.’

  ‘What was it then, son? The whole German ruddy army, or just one or two of them out for a morning stroll?’

  ‘Weren’t a man, Sarge, nor even a German neither – looked more like an ’orse or cow to me.’

  ‘A cow or a horse? Out there in no man’s land? And how the blazes d’you think it got there? Son, you’ve been staying up too late – your eyes is playing tricks on you.’

  ‘I ’eard it too, Sarge, an all. Honest Sarge, cross me ’eart.’

  ‘Well, I can’t see nothing, I can’t see nothing, son, and that’s ’cos there’s nothing there. You’re all of a jitter son, and your jittering has brought the whole ruddy battalion on stand-to half an hour early, and who’s going to be a popular little lad when I tells the lieutenant all about it? Spoiled his beauty sleep, haven’t you, son? You gorn and woken up all them lovely captains and majors and brigadiers, and all them nice sergeants an all, just ’cos you thought you seen a flaming horse.’ And then in a louder voice that was intended to carry further. ‘But seeing as how we’re all stood to and there’s a pea-soup flaming London smog out there, and seeing as how Jerry likes to come a-knocking on our little dugouts just when we can’t see him a-coming, I wants you lads to keep your eyes peeled back and wide open – then we’ll all live to eat our breakfasts, if it’s on this morning. There’ll be a rum ration coming round in a few minutes – that’ll light you up – but until then I want every one of your eyes skinned.’

  As he spoke I limped away. I could feel myself shaking from head to tail in dreadful anticipation of the next bullet or shell, and I wanted only to be alone, away from any noise whatever, whether or not it appeared to be threatening. In my weakened, frightened condition any sense of reason had left me and I wandered now through the mists until my good legs could drag me no further. I stood at last, resting my bleeding leg, on a soft, fresh mound of mud beside a foul-smelling, water-filled crater, and I snuffled the ground in vain for something to eat. But the earth where I stood was bare of grass and I had neither the energy nor the will at that moment to move another step forward. I lifted my head again to look about me in case I should discover any grass nearby and as I did so I felt the first sunlight filter in through the mist and touch my back sending gentle shivers of warmth through my cold, cramped body.

  Within minutes the mist began to clear away and I saw for the first time that I stood in a wide corridor of mud, a wasted, shattered landscape, between two vast unending rolls of barbed wire that stretched away into the distance behind me and in front of me. I remembered I had been in such a place once before, that day when I had charged across it with Topthorn beside me. This was what the soldiers called ‘no man’s land’.


  FROM BOTH SIDES of me I heard a gradual crescendo of excitement and laughter rippling along the trenches, interspersed with barked orders that everyone was to keep their heads down and no one was to shoot. From my vantage point on the mound I could see only an occasional glimpse of a steel helmet, my only evidence that the voices I was hearing did indeed belong to real people. There was the sweet smell of cooking food wafting towards me and I lifted my nose to savour it. It was sweeter than the sweetest bran-mash I had ever tasted and it had a tinge of salt about it. I was drawn first one way and then the other by this promise of warm food, but each time I neared the trenches on either side I met an impenetrable barrier of loosely coiled barbed wire. The soldiers cheered me on as I came closer, showing their heads fully now over the trenches and beckoning me towards them; and when I had to turn back at the wire and crossed no man’s land to the other side, I was welcomed again there by a chorus of whistling and clapping, but again I could find no way through the wire. I must have criss-crossed no man’s land for much of that morning, and found at long last in the middle of this blasted wilderness a small patch of coarse, dank grass growing on the lip of an old crater.

  I was busying myself at tearing the last of this away when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a man in a grey uniform clamber up out of the trenches, waving a white flag above his head. I looked up as he began to clip his way methodically through the wire and then pull it aside. All this time there was much argument and noisy consternation from the other side; and soon a small, helmeted figure in a flapping khaki greatcoat climbed up into no man’s land. He too held up a white handkerchief in one hand and began also to work his way through the wire towards me.

  The German was through the wire first, leaving a narrow gap behind him. He approached me slowly across no man’s land, calling out to me all the while to come towards him. He reminded me at once of dear old Friedrich for he was, like Friedrich, a grey-haired man in an untidy, unbuttoned uniform and he spoke gently to me. In one hand he held a rope; the other hand he stretched out towards me. He was still far too far away for me to see clearly, but an offered hand in my experience was often cupped and there was enough promise in that for me to limp cautiously towards him. On both sides the trenches were lined now with cheering men, standing on the parapets waving their helmets above their heads.

  ‘Oi, boyo!’ The shout came from behind me and was urgent enough to stop me. I turned to see the small man in khaki weaving and jinking his way across no man’s land, one hand held high above his head carrying the white handkerchief. ‘Oi, boyo! Where you going? Hang on a bit. You’re going the wrong way, see.’

  The two men who were coming towards me could not have been more different. The one in grey was the taller of the two and as he came nearer I could see his face was lined and creased with years. Everything about him was slow and gentle under his ill-fitting uniform. He wore no helmet, but instead the peakless cap with the red band I knew so well sitting carelessly on the back of his head. The little man in khaki reached us, out of breath, his face red and still smooth with youth, his round helmet with the broad rim fallen askew over one ear. For a few strained, silent moments the two stood yards apart from each other, eyeing one another warily and saying not a word. It was the young man in khaki who broke the silence and spoke first.

  ‘Now what do we do?’ he said, walking towards us and looking at the German who stood head and shoulders above him. ‘There’s two of us here and one horse to split between us. ’Course, King Solomon had the answer, didn’t he now? But it’s not very practical in this case is it? And what’s worse, I can’t speak a word of German, and I can see you can’t understand what the hell I’m talking about, can you? Oh hell, I should never have come out here, I knew I shouldn’t. Can’t think what came over me, and all for a muddy old horse too.’

  ‘But I can, I can speak a little bad English,’ said the older man, still holding out his cupped hand under my nose. It was full of black bread broken into pieces, a titbit I was familiar enough with but usually found too bitter for my taste. However I was now too hungry to be choosy and as he was speaking I soon emptied his hand. ‘I speak only a little English – like a schoolboy – but it’s enough I think for us.’ And even as he spoke I felt a rope slip slowly around my neck and tighten. ‘As for our other problem, since I have been here the first, then the horse is mine. Fair, no? Like your cricket?’

  ‘Cricket! Cricket!’ said the young man. ‘Who’s ever heard of that barbarous game in Wales? That’s a game for the rotten English. Rugby, that’s my game, and that’s not a game. That’s a religion that is – where I come from. I played scrum-half for Maesteg before the war stopped me,
and at Maesteg we say that a loose ball is our ball.’

  ‘Sorry?’ said the German, his eyebrows furrowed with concern. ‘I cannot understand what you mean by this.’

  ‘Doesn’t matter, Jerry. Not important, not any more. We could have settled all this peaceful like, Jerry – the the war I mean – and I’d be back in my valley and you’d be back in yours. Still, not your fault I don’t suppose. Nor mine, neither come to that.’

  By now the cheering from both sides had subsided and both armies looked on in total silence as the two men talked together beside me. The Welshman was stroking my nose and feeling my ears. ‘You know horses then?’ said the tall German. ‘How bad is his wounded leg? Is it broken do you think? He seems not to walk on it.’

  The Welshman bent over and lifted my leg gently and expertly, wiping away the mud from around the wound. ‘He’s in a mess right enough, but I don’t think it’s broken, Jerry. It’s a bad wound though, a deep gash – wire by the look of it. Got to get him seen to quick else the poison will set in and then there won’t be a lot anyone could do for him. Cut like that, he must have lost a lot of blood already. Question is though, who takes him? We’ve got a veterinary hospital somewhere back behind our lines that could take care of him, but I expect you’ve got one too.’

  ‘Yes, I think so. Somewhere it must be, but I do not know exactly where,’ the German said slowly. And then he dug deep in his pocket and produced a coin. ‘You choose the side you want, “head or tail”, I think you say. I will show the coin to everyone on both sides and everyone will know that whichever side wins the horse it is only by chance. Then no one loses any pride, yes? And everyone will be happy.’

  The Welshman looked up admiringly and smiled. ‘All right then, you go ahead, Jerry, you show them the coin and then you toss and I’ll call.’

  The German held the coin up in the sun and then turned a full slow circle before spinning it high and glinting into the air. As it fell to the ground the Welshman called out in a loud, resonant voice so that all the world could hear, ‘Heads!’

  ‘Well,’ said the German stooping to pick it up. ‘That’s the face of my Kaiser looking up at me out of the mud, and he does not look pleased with me. So I am afraid you have won. The horse is yours. Take good care of him, my friend,’ and he picked up the rope again and handed it to the Welshman. As he did so he held out his other hand in a gesture of friendship and reconciliation, a smile lighting his worn face. ‘In an hour, maybe, or two,’ he said. ‘We will be trying our best again each other to kill. God only knows why we do it, and I think he has maybe forgotten why. Goodbye Welshman. We have shown them, haven’t we? We have shown them that any problem can be solved between people if only they can trust each other. That is all it needs, no?’

  The little Welshman shook his head in disbelief as he took the rope. ‘Jerry, boyo, I think if they would let you and me have an hour or two out here together, we could sort out this whole wretched mess. There would be no more weeping widows and crying children in my valley and no more in yours. If the worse came to the worst we could decide it all on the flip of a coin, couldn’t we now?’

  ‘If we did,’ said the German with a chuckle. ‘If we did it that way, then it would be our turn to win. And maybe your Lloyd George would not like that.’ And he put his hands on the Welshman’s shoulders for a moment. ‘Take care, my friend, and good luck. Auf Wiedersehen.’ And he turned away and walked slowly back across no man’s land to the wire.

  ‘Same to you, boyo,’ the Welshman shouted after him, and then he too turned and led me away back towards the line of khaki soldiers who began now to laugh and cheer with delight as I limped towards them through the gap in the wire.


  IT WAS ONLY with the greatest difficulty that I stayed standing on my three good legs in the veterinary wagon that carried me that morning away from the heroic little Welshman who had brought me in. A milling crowd of soldiers surrounded me to cheer me on my way. But out on the long rattling roads I was very soon shaken off my balance and fell in an ungainly, uncomfortable heap on the floor of the wagon. My injured leg throbbed terribly as the wagon rocked from side to side on its slow journey away from the battle front. The wagon was drawn by two stocky black horses, both well groomed out and immaculate in well-oiled harness. Weakened by long hours of pain and starvation I had not the strength even to get to my feet when I felt the wheels below me running at last on smooth cobblestones and the wagon came to a jerking standstill in the warm, pale autumn sunshine. My arrival was greeted by a chorus of excited neighing and I raised my head to look. I could just see over the sideboards a wide, cobbled courtyard with magnificent stables on either side and a great house with turrets beyond. Over every stable-door were the heads of inquisitive horses, ears pricked. There were men in khaki walking everywhere, and a few were running now towards me, one of them carrying a rope halter.

  Unloading was painful, for I had little strength left and my legs had gone numb after the long journey. But they got me to my feet and walked me backwards gently down the ramp. I found myself the centre of anxious and admiring attention in the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by a cluster of soldiers who inspected minutely every part of me, feeling me all over.

  ‘What in thunder do you think you’re about, you lot?’ came a booming voice echoing across the court-yard. ‘It’s an ’orse. It’s an ’orse just like the others.’ A huge man was striding towards us, his boots crisp on the cobbles. His heavy red face was half hidden by the shade of his peaked cap that almost touched his nose and by a ginger moustache that spread upwards from his lips to his ears. ‘It may be a famous ’orse. It may be the only thundering ’orse in the ’ole thundering war brought in alive from no man’s land. But it is only an ’orse and a dirty ’orse at that. I’ve had some rough looking specimens brought in here in my time, but this is the scruffiest, dirtiest, muddiest ’orse I have ever seen. He’s a thundering disgrace and you’re all stood about looking at him.’ He wore three broad stripes on his arm and the creases in his immaculate khaki uniform were razor sharp. ‘Now there’s a hundred or more sick ’orses ’ere in this ’ospital and there’s just twelve of us to look after them. This ’ere young layabout was detailed to look after this one when he arrived, so the rest of you blighters can get back to your duties. Move it, you idle monkeys, move it!’ And the men scattered in all directions, leaving me with a young soldier who began to lead me away towards a stable. ‘And you,’ came that booming voice again. ‘Major Martin will be down from the ’ouse in ten minutes to examine that ’orse. Make sure that ’orse is so thundering clean and thundering shiny so’s you could use him as a shaving mirror, right?’

  ‘Yes, Sergeant,’ came the reply. A reply that sent a sudden shiver of recognition through me. Quite where I had heard the voice before I did now know. I knew only that those two words sent a tremor of joy and hope and expectation through my body and warmed me from the inside out. He led me slowly across the cobbles, and I tried all the while to see his face better. But he kept just that much ahead of me so that all I could see was a neatly shaven neck and a pair of pink ears.

  ‘How the divil did you get yourself stuck out there in no man’s land, you old silly?’ he said. ‘That’s what everyone wants to know ever since the message came back that they’d be bringing you in here. And how the divil did you get yourself in such a state? I swear there’s not an inch of you that isn’t covered in mud or blood. Job to tell what you look like under all that mess. Still, we’ll soon see. I’ll tie you up here and get the worst of it off in the open air. Then I’ll brush you up in the proper manner afore the officer gets here. Come on, you silly you. Once I’ve got you cleaned up then the officer can see you and he’ll tidy up the nasty cut of yours. Can’t give you food, I’m sorry to say, nor any water, not till he says so. That’s what the sergeant told me. That’s just in case they have to operate on you.’ And the way he whistled as he cleaned out the brushes was the whistle that went with the voice I knew. It con
firmed my rising hopes and I knew then that I could not be mistaken. In my overwhelming delight I reared up on my back legs and cried out to him to recognise me. I wanted to make him see who I was. ‘Hey, careful there, you silly. Nearly had my hat off,’ he said gently, keeping a firm hold on the rope and smoothing my nose as he always had done whenever I was unhappy. ‘No need for that. You’ll be all right. Lot of fuss about nothing. Knew a young horse once just like you, proper jumpy he was till I got to know him and he got to know me.’

  ‘You talking to them horses again, Albert?’ came a voice from inside the next stable. ‘Gawd’s strewth! What makes you think they understand a perishing word you say?’

  ‘Some of them may not, David,’ said Albert. ‘But one day, one day one of them will. He’ll come in here and he’ll recognise my voice. He’s bound to come in here. And then you’ll see a horse that understands every word that’s said to him.’

  ‘You’re not on about your Joey again?’ The head that came with the voice leant over the stable-door. ‘Won’t you never give it up, Berty? I’ve told you before if I’ve told you a thousand times. They say there’s near half a million ruddy horses out here and you joined the Veterinary Corps just on the off-chance you might come across him.’ I pawed the ground with my bad leg in an effort to make Albert look at me more closely, but he just patted my neck and set to work cleaning me up. ‘There’s just one chance in half a million that your Joey walks in here. You got to be more realistic. He could be dead – a lot of them are. He could have gorn orf to ruddy Palestine with the Yeomanry. He could be anywhere along hundreds of miles of trenches. If you weren’t so ruddy good with horses, and if you weren’t the best friend I had, I’d think you’d gorn and gorn a bit screwy the way you go on about your Joey.’

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