War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

Told largely from the perspective of one of the horses serving in the British Cavalry in World War I, this might be an interesting glimpse into a period of time fast vanishing for kids who like stories told from the animals’ perspective.

Joey is a red bay Thoroughbred-Irish Draught cross, purchased by a farmer in rural England to work his fields along with his aging mare, Zoey. The father is alcoholic, and in his cups will abuse both horses, but the son, Albert, takes over the care of both as he matures and proves a good friend to Joey. The two ride the countryside together to tend the family’s livestock and plough the fields together…but when World War I breaks out, Joey is conscripted (if that word may be used for animals) while Albert is still too young to enlist himself.

Neither Joey or Albert forget one another, though Joey’s experiences on the front between the British and the Germans would cause even the cleverest of human to seek oblivion. Joey’s officer is shot from his back leaving him batted about between survivors–some better horsemen than others though all at least try to care for the horse. The friendship between Joey and another horse, Topthorn, proves a comfort to both. The humans, both British and German, recognize that bond and keep the two together as much is possible until Topthorn’s death; the combination of the strain of hauling artillery through the morass of the trenches and the inadequate feed does him in.

Joey stands over his companion’s body until, thrown into a panic by the approach of a tank, he flees across no man’s land reaching the British lines as dawn breaks, though badly injured by the rolls of barbed wire. It is here that Albert and Joey are reunited, though a bad case of tetanus and the forced auction of the army horses at the end of the war leave that in doubt. The foreshadowing prologue does give a hint of how the book ends, though I’ll stop here just to tease readers into actually getting the book.

In many ways, World War I proved a watershed in terms of cavalry in warfare; forward-thinking military tacticians realized that cavalry’s usefulness would decline rapidly as the war progressed but the more entrenched officers insisted that the mounted forces remained. Horses retained some limited usefulness as a result of their ability to move through mud deeper than even modern motorized vehicles can manage. However, modern innovations such as tanks and machine guns, combined with the tactics of trench warfare, rendered them cruelly archaic in the European theater; the charge was rendered ineffective by the increased range and accuracy of artillery and rifles, and the trenches and barbed wire barriers hampered the horses’ movement beyond even what hock-deep mud might do.

War Horse is a simple enough story, with just enough description of battles to give a clear idea of the war but without any omniscience as to the human motivations; Morpurgo does not break (much) from what a horse might see or understand, with the exception of allowing Joey to understand human speech. Joey is considerably anthropomorphized, however, and there were a few gaffes, such as “I turned to Topthorn who was already up on his toes ready for the trot that we knew was to come.” (Horses haven’t really got toes in the sense that Morpurgo’s using it here. Anatomically, their feet are the equivalent of human fingertips and toes; hence, they’re already on tippytoes. But that’s nitpicking.)

Kids who’ve seen the movie based on the book may want to read this, as might teachers assign it when their classes are covering World War I. War Horse isn’t nearly as gooey as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty; the horses do not converse with one another, and much of the Victorian moralizing about treatment is removed–Morpurgo shows rather than tells the horror of the horses’ lives in war.


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