Millions of people were killed in the First World War and with, beside or beneath them, millions of horses, which also had to cope with machine guns, grenades, tanks and poison gas.
Representing his fellow sufferers, both two- and four-legged, the war horse Joey tells the tale of his joys and horrors.
13-year old Albert and his much-loved horse Joey grown up together on a farm in the English county of Devon. However, when the war breaks out, Albert’s father sells Joey to the cavalry.
During the four years of war in France, the horse Joey comes in contact with the British, Germans and French. On all sides there are people who try to do the horse good, those who have preserved their humanity and show a love for animals, even under extreme conditions, under the constant threat of injury, mutilation or death.
Joey initially serves as a riding horse and, as he is the speediest, he is always in the front row during attacks. When his rider, Captain Nicholls, is shot he is taken by German soldiers. Together with his friend, the strong black horse Topthorn, and Heinie, Coco and two Haflingers, they form a team that pulls heavy military equipment. Later, Joey is then used to transport the wounded.
The horse does not differentiate between nationalities, nor according to the color of the uniforms or the shape of the steel helmets, but rather based on how people treat him.
When Joey panics in a contested no man’s land between the German and British trenches, he gets himself stuck in the barbed wire. As he is lying on the ground no longer able to free himself, a German and a British soldier work together to try to free the seriously injured animal. These moments show how love for fellow creatures allows both sides to put away the deadly weapons, at least for a moment. —
Over the course of his life, Joey becomes very fond of some of “his” people: the young Albert, with whom he grows up on the farm, and Captain Nicholls, who buys him as an army horse. Then the Germans Rudi and Friedrich and the French girl Emilie and her grandfather.
The differences between his various riders are particularly well described from the horse’s point of view:
Corporal Samuel Perkins (my trainer in the army) was a hard, gritty little man, an ex-jockey whose only pleasure in life seemed to be the power he could exert over a horse… He rode hard and heavy-handed. With him the whip and the spurs were not just for show… I certainly felt for him a degree of respect, but this was based on fear and not love.
My only consolation in those early days of training were the visits of Captain Nicholls every evening in the stables. He alone seemed to have the time to come and talk to me as Albert had done before. Sitting on an upturned bucket in the corner of my stable, a sketch-book on his knees, he would draw me as he talked. (Chapter 5)
Trooper Warren was not a good horseman – I could tell that the minute he mounted me. He was always tense and rode heavy in the saddle like a sack of potatoes. He had neither the experience and confidence of Corporal Samuel Perkins nor the finesse and sensitivity of Captain Nicholls. He rocked unevenly in the saddle and rode me always on too tight a rein so that I was forced to toss my head continuously to loosen it. But once out of the saddle he was the gentlest of men. He was meticulous and kind in his grooming and attended at once to my frequent and painful saddle sores, chafings and windgalls to which I was particularly prone. He cared for me as no one had since I left home. Over the next few months it was his loving attention that was to keep me alive. (Chapter 7)
Military equine doctors and animal orderlies aim to save, to alleviate suffering. When Joey’s best four-legged friend Topthorn collapses due to excessive stress, the vet speaks to the officers and soldiers around him:
I told you so, 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 cannot 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.” (Chapter 14)
To the great joy of both, childhood friends Albert and his horse Joey are reunited and remain inseparable as the two make repeated trips to the front and back to the hospital with the vetinery car.
Albert was always with me and so I was never afraid of the guns any more. Like Topthorn before him, he seemed to sense that I needed a continual reminder that he was with me and protecting me. His soft gentle voice, his songs and his whistling tunes held me steady as the shell came down.
The author succeeds in captivating readers young and old right from the first page. This book is highly recommended, and not only to horse lovers.
Ages 12 and up.
Filmed by director Steven Spielberg, War Horse is a movie worth watching, but the book is much better. If only the filmmakers had stayed closer to the content of the book and didn’t attempt to add anything unnecessary!