The Real Story of War Horses on the Western Front

The upcoming Spielberg feature War Horse tells a powerful personal tale, but the play it's based on misses the larger narrative about cavalry's role in World War I



After a smashing success on the London stage and a Tony-award winning production in New York,War Horse is now about to have another blast of publicity with the release on Christmas Day of Stephen Spielberg's film version.

Drawn from a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo and set before and during World War I, War Horse is the story of a young boy who trains and comes to love a horse named Joey. But Joey is sold by the boy's father to the cavalry as it leaves for the front, and, when the boy becomes old enough to enlist, he searches for the horse on the battle-scarred fields of France.

Despite stunning stagecraft that evokes the horror of war in general, War Horse keeps its focus narrowly on the boy-stallion relationship, saying little about the First World War itself. It sounds like the film treats the conflict in the same way. "I didn't pay a lot of attention to the first World War,” Spielberg said in an interview earlier this month. “I didn't know very much about it. And I also don't consider War Horse to be a war movie. This is not one of my war movies. This is much more of a real story between the connections that sometimes animals achieve; the way animals can actually connect people together."

This is ironic. The war horses of the Western Front in fact offer a powerful metaphor for the war's mass human slaughter, as the old tactics of frontal cavalry and infantry assaults were crushed by the new technology of huge artillery, machine guns, tear gas, and barbed wire. War Horse, at least as a play, thus fails to provide much context about the monumental dimensions of the Great War itself. This fuller setting of the scene (beyond generalized horrors of battle) could, if handled with grace in a dramatic vehicle, have given the very personal story more poignancy--from the destruction of a generation of young men to the end of 19th-century Europe. Regardless of issues with the play or film, though, the saga of the war horses as a symbol of the war's larger themes is itself a striking tale. (See Simon Butler, The War Horses (Halsgrove 2011)).

For centuries, cavalry had been an important element of military strategy, giving commanders the ability to strike quickly and shock the enemy, either with direct attacks or hit-and-run raids on the opponents' periphery. But, early in WWI, the casualties from such frontal cavalry assaults on the Western Front were so appalling, and attacks behind lines impossible because of the miles of trenches and wire, that the cavalry largely disappeared as an offensive weapon. (In the more open warfare on the Eastern Front and in the Middle East, war on horseback remained strategically important.)

Because trucks were underpowered and incapable of moving through seas of mud, horses continued, as they had historically, to have great value in the traditional role of hauling men, supplies, kitchens, the wounded, ammunition, and artillery. But the customary battleground risks to horses of disease or exhaustion or inadequate food were compounded by the new conditions of the Great War: tear gas, shell shock, drowning in craters or direct hits from mammoth artillery shells, machine gun fire or, increasingly, air attack. Knowing how valuable horses were, the armies often targeted them.

Presented by

Ben W. Heineman Jr.

Ben Heineman Jr. is is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and at the Harvard Law School's Program on Corporate Governance. He is the author of High Performance With High Integrity.

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