Surviving History


ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and seven other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

WAR HORSE: A REMARKABLE TRUE STORY FROM THE GREAT WAR


He stood fearless and proud in readiness for the battle ahead.
He had already braved four years of warfare, including the battle of the Somme in 1916.
Canadian cavalry charge: they were led by Warrior
He had also survived the muddy hell of Passchendaele.
Now, on 30 March, 1918, Warrior was to face his toughest assignment. This 20-year-old chestnut-brown gelding was to lead one of the last great cavalry charges in history.
Warrior, with General Seely
His mission was to stop the German Spring Offensive of 1918 and his adventures were to prove every bit as extraordinary as those of Michael Morpurgo’s fictional warhorse.
Warrior was one of the million horses sent to France between 1914 and 1918. Only 62,000 of these ever returned home.
They are forgotten victims of a conflict that pitted defenceless horses again tanks and machine guns.
Warrior belonged to General John Seely and both were born survivors. Legend has it that when Seely recommended Warrior for the Victoria Cross, his reasoning was simple: ‘He went everywhere I did.’
Great War: deadly for horses
Warrior had certainly proved his mettle in four years of bloody conflict on the western front. He had arrived in France in the summer of 1914: that autumn, he narrowly escaped capture by the advancing German army.
In the following year, the horse next to him was killed when a shell ripped him in two. A few days later, Warrior’s stable was destroyed just seconds after he’d left it.
His most desperate moment had come at Passchendaele, where he was dug out of mud that was several feet deep.
In February, 1915, Warrior and Seely had been put in command of the Canadian Cavalry, a rag-bag force of ranchers, Mounties and Native Americans.
Gas kills horses, too
They numbered 1,000 horses and, in 1918, they were given a vital mission to accomplish. The German war machine had ripped through the British lines, taking more than 100,000 prisoners - men of the British Fifth Army. The Germans were making rapid progress westwards.
It was crucial that they should be checked and the place chosen to halt their advance was at Moreuil Wood on the banks of the Avre River. Victory here would not only secure the river. It would also stop the German thrust westwards.
The charge into the woodland was to take place on 30 March: it was to be led by Warrior and eleven other horses. Their initial task was to plant a red pennant on the hill above the river. This would act as a guide for the rest of the cavalry.
Warrior had already survived Passchendaele
‘[Warrior] was determined to go forward,’ wrote Seely, ‘and with a great leap started off. All sensation of fear had vanished from him as he galloped on at racing speed. There was a hail of bullets from the enemy as we crossed the intervening space and mounted the hill, but Warrior cared for nothing.’
Warrior made it to the hilltop and the pennant was planted. Seconds later, there was a loud thundering as 1,000 other horses followed him into battle.
Squadron after squadron rode into the chaos. Shells rained down on them and gunfire came from every angle.
Warrior and his fellow horses were supported by the Royal Flying Corps which fired more than 17,000 rounds. But it was to no avail: hundreds of horses were mown down by German machine gun fire.
Warrior meets the queen
The battle continued into the late afternoon. Rain tipped from the metal-grey sky and the light began to fade. Warrior continued to lead from the front until the battle slowly began to turn.
By nightfall, the wood had been taken and the German advance finally brought to a halt. But victory came at a heavy price. A quarter of the men - and more than half the horses - had been killed in the slaughter.
There was no respite for Warrior. He was to be called back into action on the following day in order to lead an attack close to the village of Gentelles.
The fictional war horse: but don't forget Warrior
But he was injured in the dark and forced out of action. General Seely, too, was wounded and unable to continue.
Warrior’s escape from death on so many occasions was truly remarkable. He lived until 1941, too old to re-enter service in the Second World War.
Besides, warfare had changed beyond all recognition in the intervening years. There was no longer a place for warhorses like Warrior to lead cavalry charges.
He remains one of the unsung heroes of the Great War - a faithful, devoted and extraordinarily courageous warhorse who helped to secure victory on the Western Front. 


UK Paperback
Giles Milton has a rare ability – a talent for sifting fine pearls from faraway sands and for transmuting the merely arcane into little literary gems.’  Simon Winchester

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