War Horse directed by Steven Spielberg
Horses in World War I by Naomi Pugh
In mid-January my riding buddies from Ballentine’s Horse Heaven met at the Sayre Theater to view “War Horse”, a Dream Works production directed by Steven Spielberg and advertised for release during the Christmas holiday. Last year Donna Horton organized a movie night for all the riders at the stable. Everyone went to see the movie “Seabiscuit”. Unfortunately, I couldn’t join my friends and missed the movie. This year when Donna said she was organizing another movie night, I marked my calendar determined not to miss it.
The movie date approached. Donna called asking if I’d be able to make it for “War Horse”, the late show on Friday night and of course the answer was yes. I drove over to Anne’s house. Once Anne and her daughter, Stephanie, climbed into the car, I circled around the block and headed for Sayre. We stepped up to the box-office window and were greeted by the manager, Margie Ross, paid our admission and received small, red tickets. The smell of salt, butter and popcorn wafted through the air, permeating the theater. Anne stopped at the refreshment counter to buy a large bucket of popcorn. A few feet away near the movie posters showing coming attractions, I saw Donna and Karen and walked over to meet them.
“I brought some tissues. . . I thought I’d need them,” said Donna smiling.
“Me too, I tried to put the whole box in my purse but it didn’t fit, so I just stuffed in a handful. After watching the movie trailer I thought I better be prepared,” I replied.
The first show was almost over, we walked into the entrance hall and waited next to a small folding table set up for donations to help horses at the Bradford County Animal Shelter. On the table sat before and after pictures of Sham, an Arab stallion recently rescued by the shelter. A huge plastic jug filled with bills rested on the table.
“The money goes to feed the horses we rescue. Since the shelter doesn’t have facilities to stable horses, we adopt them out to farms but the shelter covers costs,” said Anne.
“I hope you raise a lot of money,” I replied dropping a few dollars into the jar.
It wasn’t long before the wide swinging doors to the theater opened. Over the heads of the exiting crowd we could see the movie credits playing, row upon row of red seats, and the gilded ornate plaster surrounding the stage in front of the movie screen. The moviegoers flooded out through the doors, pressed by us, many faces red, streaked with tears, hands clutching a Kleenex or hankie. Most of the people reached into pockets and purses, bringing forth money to stuff the donation jar for the care of abused horses at the Bradford County Animal Shelter.
We found our seats and sat down. I relaxed, the seats were comfy, the company pleasant, and Anne offered everyone popcorn which was yummy. We waited a bit, not many came to the late show. Then Margie Ross stepped in front of the seats, not far from us, and made an announcement about the Bradford County Regional Arts Council which operates the theater. She explained about the fundraiser for the shelter and introduced the film based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo and a British stage play adapted by Nick Stafford.
“The movie will begin shortly…enjoy the show,” concluded Margie.
Suddenly, darkness enveloped us and the movie began. At first events transpired in the usual way concerning protagonists and antagonists until everything went deadly wrong and the horse joined the Calvary, went off to war and horrific things happened. Of course, I don’t want to give away the movie, but I will say it wasn’t what I expected. Graphic scenes of World War I flashed on the screen showing horses pitted against modern mechanized war technology; machineguns, tanks, mustard gas and trench warfare. The dead horses on the battlefield strewn like tossed playthings by a spoiled child were heart wrenching. The terror of war and how out of place horses were on the battlefield was crushing. We all had need of our handkerchiefs.
The movie ended and we stood up and read through the credits displayed on the screen before us. The names scrolled down. We watched for a credit for the horse that played Joey, the War Horse, but there was none so a bit disappointed we left the theater.
It’s estimated that over 8 million horses died in World War I (1914-1918). At the beginning of the war, Cavalry units were considered an essential part of any military force; however, trench warfare, modern machine guns and artillery fire overwhelmed mounted units rendering them ineffective. As the war progressed, horses became relegated to another role throughout the war; transport of troops, supplies, armaments and the wounded.
Even though World War I ended, that did not end the involvement of horses in warfare. World War II (1939-1945) proved equally fatal to horses. Although the number of horses lost in the Second World War is unclear, the German’s alone lost 2.5 million horses. During the war, the Germans and Soviets employed more than 6 million horses, relying on them to pull military transports and artillery on the Eastern Front. All of the belligerent nations employed horses in some capacity. Again, the horse was used to transport equipment and supplies especially on terrain where motorized vehicles could not traverse. Today horse units within the modern military have almost disappeared; now they are primarily used for ceremonial occasions or reconnaissance.
In England on November 24, 2004 at Hyde Park, the Animal’s of War Memorial created by sculptor, David Backhouse, was unveiled to commemorate the fallen horses, mules and donkeys which died while in the service of the British military throughout history. Perhaps considering the great sacrifice horses have made during war a few more memorials should be erected to the unwitting animals which paid such a high price with their lives.
I found the following poem on line by an anonymous author which sums up the situation pretty well:
Look back at our struggle for freedom,
Trace our present day’s strength to its source;
And you’ll find that man’s pathway to glory
Is strewn with the bones of the horse.
http://warandgame.com/2008/02/26/the-horse-in-the-german-army-in-wwii/, http://www.animalsinwar.org.uk/index.cfm?asset_id=1373, http://www.eisenhowerinstitute.org/about/living_history/wwii_soviet_experience.dot, http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/horses_in_world_war_one.htm, http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/horse/?section=howshaped&page=howshaped_bvi