War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

  ‘You’ll understand why when you see him, David,’ Albert said crouching down to scrape the caked mud off my underside. ‘You’ll see. There’s no horse like him anywhere in the whole world. He’s a bright red bay with a black mane and tail. He has a white cross on his forehead and four white socks that are all even to the last inch. He stands over sixteen hands and he’s perfect from head to tail. I can tell you, I can tell you that when you see him you’ll know him. I could pick him out of a crowd of a thousand horses. There’s just something about him. Captain Nicholls, you know, him that’s dead now, the one I told you about that bought Joey from my father, him that sent me Joey’s picture; he knew it. He saw it the first time he set eyes on him. I’ll find him, David. That’s what I came all this way for and I’m going to find him. Either I’ll find him, or he’ll find me. I told you, I made him a promise and I’m going to keep it.’

  ‘You’re round the ruddy twist, Berty,’ said his friend opening a stable-door and coming over to examine my leg. ‘Round the ruddy twist, that’s all I can say.’ He picked up my hoof and lifted it gently. ‘This one’s got a white sock on his front legs anyway – that’s as far as I can tell under all this blood and mud. I’ll just sponge the wound away a bit, clean it up for you whilst I’m here. You’ll never get this one cleaned up in time else. And I’ve finished mucking out my ruddy stables. Not a lot else to do and it looks as if you could do with a hand. Old Sergeant Thunder won’t mind, not if I’ve done all he told me, and I have.’

  The two men worked tirelessly on me, scraping and brushing and washing. I stood quite still trying only to nuzzle Albert to make him turn and look at me. But he was busying at my tail and my hindquarters now.

  ‘Three,’ said his friend, washing off another of my hooves. ‘That’s three white socks.’

  ‘Turn it up, David,’ said Albert. ‘I know what you think. I know everyone thinks I’ll never find him. There’s thousands of army horses with four white socks – I know that, but there’s only one with a blaze in the shape of a cross on the forehead. And how many horses shine red like fire in the evening sun? I tell you there’s not another one like him, not in the whole wide world.’

  ‘Four,’ said David. ‘That’s four legs and four white socks. Only the cross on the fore’ead now, and a splash of red paint on this muddy mess of a horse and you’ll have your Joey standing ’ere.’

  ‘Don’t tease,’ said Albert quietly. ‘Don’t tease, David. You know how serious I am about Joey. It’ll mean all the world to me to find him again. Only friend I ever had afore I came to the war. I told you. I grew up with him, I did. Only creature on this earth I felt any kinship for.’

  David was standing now by my head. He lifted my mane and brushed gently at first then vigorously at my forehead, blowing the dust away from my eyes. He peered closely and then set to again brushing down towards the end of my nose and up again between my ears till I tossed my head with impatience.

  ‘Berty,’ he said quietly. ‘I’m not teasing, honest I’m not. Not now. You said your Joey had four white socks, all even to the inch? Right?’

  ‘Right,’ said Albert, still brushing away at my tail.

  ‘And you said Joey had a white cross on his forehead?’

  ‘Right,’ Albert was still completely disinterested.

  ‘Now I have never ever seen a horse like that, Berty,’ said David, using his hand to smooth down the hair on my forehead. ‘Wouldn’t have thought it possible.’

  ‘Well, it is, I tell you,’ said Albert sharply. ‘And he was red, flaming red in the sunlight, like I said.’

  ‘I wouldn’t have thought it possible,’ his friend went on, keeping his voice in check. ‘Not until now that is.’

  ‘Oh, pack it in, David,’ Albert said, and there was a genuine irritation in his voice now. ‘I’ve told you, haven’t I? I told you I’m serious about Joey.’

  ‘So am I, Berty. Dead serious. No messing, I’m serious. This horse has four white socks – all evenly marked like you said. This horse has a clear white cross on his head. This horse, as you can see for yourself, has a black mane and tail. This horse stands over sixteen hands and when he’s cleaned up he’ll look pretty as a picture. And this horse is a red bay under all that mud, just like you said, Berty.’

  As David was speaking Albert suddenly dropped my tail and moved slowly around me running his hand along my back. Then at last we stood facing one another. There was a rougher hue to his face I thought; he had more lines around his eyes and he was a broader, bigger man in his uniform than I remembered him. But he was my Albert, and there was no doubt about it, he was my Albert.

  ‘Joey?’ he said tentatively, looking into my eyes. ‘Joey?’ I tossed up my head and called out to him in my happiness, so that the sound echoed around the yard and brought horses and men to the door of their stables. ‘It could be,’ said Albert quietly. ‘You’re right David, it could be him. It sounds like him even. But there’s one way I know to be sure,’ and he untied my rope and pulled the halter off my head. Then he turned and walked away to the gateway before facing me, cupping his hands to his lips and whistling. It was his owl whistle, the same low, stuttering whistle he had used to call me when we were walking out together back at home on the farm all those long years before. Suddenly there was no longer any pain in my leg, and I trotted easily over towards him and buried my nose in his shoulder. ‘It’s him, David,’ Albert said, putting his arms around my neck and hanging on to my mane. ‘It’s my Joey. I’ve found him. He’s come back to me just like I said he would.’

  ‘See?’ said David wryly. ‘What did I tell you? See? Not often wrong, am I?’

  ‘Not often,’ Albert said. ‘Not often, and not this time.’


  IN THE EUPHORIC days that followed our reunion, the nightmare I had lived through seemed to fade into unreality, and the war itself was suddenly a million miles away and of no consequence. At last there were no guns to be heard, and the only vivid reminder that suffering and conflict was still going on were the regular arrivals of the veterinary wagons from the front.

  Major Martin cleaned my wound and stitched it up; and though at first I could still put little weight on it, I felt in myself stronger with every day that passed. Albert was with me again, and that in itself was medicine enough; but properly fed once more with warm mash each morning and a never ending supply of sweet-scented hay, my recovery seemed only a matter of time. Albert, like the other veterinary orderlies, had many other horses to care for, but he would spend every spare minute he could find fussing over me in the stable. To the other soldiers I was something of a celebrity, so I was scarcely ever left alone in my stable. There always seemed to be one or two faces looking admiringly over my door. Even old Thunder, as they called the sergeant, would inspect me over zealously, and when the others were not about he would fondle my ears and tickle me under my throat saying, ‘Quite a boy, aren’t you? Thundering fine horse if ever I saw one. You get better now, d’you hear?’

  But time passed and I did not get better. One morning I found myself quite unable to finish my mash and every sharp sound, like the kick of a bucket or the rattle of the bolt on the stable door, seemed to set me on edge and made me suddenly tense from head to tail. My forelegs in particular would not work as they should. They were stiff and tired, and I felt a great weight of pain all along my spine, creeping into my neck and even my face.

  Albert noticed something was wrong when he saw the mash I had left in my bucket. ‘What’s the matter with you, Joey?’ he said anxiously, and he reached out his hand to stroke me in the way he often did when he was concerned. Even the sight of his hand coming towards me, normally a welcome sign of affection, struck an alarm in me, and I backed away from him into the corner of the stable. As I did so I found that the stiffness in my front legs would hardly allow me to move. I stumbled backwards, falling against the brick wall at the back of the stable, and leaning there heavily. ‘I thought something was wrong yesterday,’ said Albert, sta
nding still now in the middle of the stable. ‘Thought you were a bit off colour then. Your back’s as stiff as a board and you’re covered in sweat. What the divil have you been up to, you old silly?’ He moved slowly now towards me and although his touch still sent an irrational tremor of fear through me, I stood my ground and allowed him to stroke me. ‘P’raps it was something you picked up on your travels. P’raps you ate something poisonous, is that it? But then that would have shown itself before now, surely? You’ll be fine, Joey, but I’ll go and fetch Major Martin just in case. He’ll look you over and if there’s anything wrong put you right “quick as a twick”, as my father used to say. Wonder what he would think now if he could see us together? He never believed I’d find you either, said I was a fool to go. Said it was a fool’s errand and that I’d likely get myself killed in the process. But he was a different man, Joey, after you left. He knew he’d done wrong, and that seemed to take all the nastiness out of him. He seemed to live only to make up for what he’d done. He stopped his Tuesday drinking sessions, looked after Mother as he used to do when I was little, and he even began to treat me right – didn’t treat me like a workhorse any more.’

  I knew from the soft tone of his voice that he was trying to calm me, as he had done all those long years ago when I was a wild and frightened colt. Then his words had soothed me, but now I could not stop myself from trembling. Every nerve in my body seemed to be taut and I was breathing heavily. Every fibre of me was consumed by a totally inexplicable sense of fear and dread. ‘I’ll be back in a minute, Joey,’ he said. ‘Don’t you worry. You’ll be all right. Major Martin will fix you – he’s a miracle with horses is that man.’ And he backed away from me and went out.

  It was not long before he was back again with his friend, David, with Major Martin and Sergeant Thunder; but only Major Martin came inside the stable to examine me. The others leaned over the stable-door and watched. He approached me cautiously, crouching down by my foreleg to examine my wound. Then he ran his hands all over me from my ears, down my back to my tail, before standing back to survey me from the other side of the stable. He was shaking his head ruefully as he turned to speak to the others.

  ‘What do you think, Sergeant?’ he asked.

  ‘Same as you, from the look of ’im, sir,’ said Sergeant Thunder. “E’s standing there like a block of wood; tail stuck out, can’t ’ardly move his head. Not much doubt about it, is there sir?’

  ‘None,’ said Major Martin. ‘None whatsoever. We’ve had a lot of it out here. If it isn’t confounded rusty barbed wire, then it’s shrapnel wounds. One little fragment left inside, one cut – that’s all it takes. I’ve seen it time and again. I’m sorry my lad,’ the major said, putting his hand on Albert’s shoulder to console him. ‘I know how much this horse means to you. But there’s precious little we can do for him, not in his condition.’

  ‘What do you mean, sir?’ Albert asked, a tremor in his voice. ‘How do you mean, sir? What’s the matter with him, sir? Can’t be a lot wrong, can there? He was right as rain yesterday, ’cept he wasn’t finishing his feed. Little stiff p’raps but otherwise right as rain he was.’

  ‘It’s tetanus, son,’ said Sergeant Thunder. ‘Lock-jaw they calls it. It’s written all over ’im. That wound of ’is must have festered afore we got ’im ’ere. And once an ’orse ’as tetanus there’s very little chance, very little indeed.’

  ‘Best to end it quickly,’ Major Martin said. ‘No point in an animal suffering. Better for him, and better for you.’

  ‘No, sir,’ Albert protested, still incredulous. ‘No you can’t, sir. Not with Joey. We must try something. There must be something you can do. You can’t just give up, sir. You can’t. Not with Joey.’

  David spoke up now in support. ‘Begging your pardon, sir,’ he said. ‘But I remembers you telling us when we first come here that a horse’s life is p’raps even more important than a man’s, ’cos an horse hasn’t got no evil in him ’cepting any that’s put there by men. I remembers you saying that our job in the veterinary corps was to work night and day, twenty-six hours a day if need be to save and help every horse that we could, that every horse was valuable in hisself and valuable to the war effort. No horse, no guns. No horse, no ammunition. No horse, no cavalry. No horse, no ambulances. No horse, no water for the troops at the front. Lifeline of the whole army, you said, sir. We must never give up, you said, ’cos where there’s life there’s still hope. That’s all what you said, sir, begging your pardon, sir.’

  ‘You watch your lip, son,’ said Sergeant Thunder sharply. ‘That’s no way to speak to an officer. If the major ’ere thought there was a chance in a million of savin’ this poor animal, ’e’d have a crack at it, wouldn’t you sir? Isn’t that right, sir?’

  Major Martin looked hard at Sergeant Thunder, taking his meaning, and then nodded slowly. ‘All right, Sergeant. You made your point. Of course there’s a chance,’ he said carefully. ‘But if once we start with a case of tetanus, then it’s a full-time job for one man for a month or more, and even then the horse has hardly more than one chance in a thousand, if that.’

  ‘Please sir,’ Albert pleaded. ‘Please sir. I’ll do it all, sir, and I’ll fit in my other horses too, sir. Honest I would, sir.’

  ‘And I’ll help him, sir,’ David said. ‘All the lads will. I know they will. You see sir, that Joey’s a bit special for everyone here, what with his being Berty’s own horse back home an all.’

  ‘That’s the spirit, son,’ said Sergeant Thunder. ‘And it’s true, sir, there is something a bit special about this one, you know, after all he’s been through. With your permission sir, I think we ought to give ’im that chance. You ’ave my personal guarantee sir that no other ’orse will be neglected. Stables will be run shipshape and Bristol fashion, like always.’

  Major Martin put his hands on the stable door. ‘Right, Sergeant,’ he said. ‘You’re on. I like a challenge as well as the next man. I want a sling rigged up in here. This horse must not be allowed to get off his legs. Once he’s down he’ll never get up again. I want a note added to standing orders, Sergeant, that no one’s to talk in anything but a whisper in this yard. He won’t like any noise, not with tetanus. I want a bed of short, clean straw – and fresh every day. I want the windows covered over so that he’s kept always in the dark. He’s not to be fed any hay – he could choke on it – just milk and oatmeal gruel. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better – if it does. You’ll find his mouth will lock tighter as the days go by, but he must go on feeding and he must drink. If he doesn’t then he’ll die. I want a twenty-four-hour watch on this horse – that means a man posted in here all day and every day. Clear?’

  ‘Yes, sir,’ said Sergeant Thunder, smiling broadly under his moustache. ‘And if I may say so, sir, I think you’ve made a very wise decision. I’ll see to it, sir. Now, look lively you two layabouts. You heard what the officer said.’

  That same day a sling was strung up around me and my weight supported from the beams above. Major Martin opened up my wound again, cleaned and cauterized it. He returned every few hours after that to examine me. It was Albert of course who stayed with me most of the time, holding up the bucket to my mouth so that I could suck in the warm milk or gruel. At nights David and he slept side by side in the corner of the stable, taking turns to watch me.

  As I had come to expect, and as I needed, Albert talked to me all he could to comfort me, until sheer fatigue drove him back into his corner to sleep. He talked much of his father and mother and about the farm. He talked of a girl he had been seeing up in the village for the few months before he left for France. She didn’t know anything about horses, he said, but that was her only fault.

  The days passed slowly and painfully for me. The stiffness in my front legs spread to my back and intensified; my appetite was becoming more limited each day and I could scarcely summon the energy or enthusiasm to suck in the food I knew I needed to stay alive. In the darkest days of my illness, when I felt s
ure each day might be my last, only Alberts constant presence kept alive in me the will to live. His devotion, his unwavering faith that I would indeed recover, gave me the heart to go on. All around me I had friends, David and all the veterinary orderlies, Sergeant Thunder and Major Martin – they were all a source of great encouragement to me. I knew how desperately they were willing me to live; although I often wondered whether they wanted it for me or for Albert for I knew they held him in such high esteem. But on reflection I think perhaps they cared for both of us as if we were their brothers.

  Then one winter’s night after long painful weeks in the sling, I felt a sudden looseness in my throat and neck, so much so that I could call out, albeit softly for the first time. Albert was sitting in the corner of the stable as usual with his back against the wall, his knees drawn up and his elbows resting on his knees. His eyes were closed, so I nickered again softly, but it was loud enough to wake him. ‘Was that you, Joey?’ he asked, pulling himself to his feet. ‘Was that you, you old silly? Do it again, Joey. I might have been dreaming. Do it again.’ So I did and in so doing I lifted my head for the first time in weeks and shook it. David heard it too and was on his feet and shouting over the stable door for everyone to come. Within minutes the stable was full of excited soldiers. Sergeant Thunder pushed his way through and stood before me. ‘Standing orders says whisper,’ he said. ‘And that was no thundering whisper I heard. What’s up? What’s all the ’ullabaloo?’

  ‘He moved, Sarge,’ Albert said. ‘His head moved easily and he neighed.’

  ‘’Course ’e did, son,’ said Sergeant Thunder. ‘’Course ’e did. ’E’s going to make it. Like I said he would. I always told you ’e would, didn’t I? And ’ave any of you layabouts ever known me to be wrong? Well, ’ave you?’

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