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Machine-gunned. Bombed in his stable. Buried alive: The war horse the Germans couldn't kill
The mission was all but impossible. An entire German division had massed in woods on top of the Moreuil ridge.
All that stood between them and the city of Amiens, 12 miles away, was a division of Canadian cavalry, under the British commander, General Jack Seely, riding his beloved horse, Warrior.
The troops liked General Seely, but they loved Warrior. Everywhere he went he was greeted and fussed over. He was more than a mascot: this bay gelding with the trusting eyes and a white star on his forehead had become the soldiers’ friend and inspiration.
He had survived four years of bullets, shells, mud and even the hell of Passchendaele. Now this indomitable animal was to be their inspiration in their toughest hour.
It was March 1918 and the war was going badly for the British. The French army were exhausted, the Americans had yet to arrive on the scene and the Russians were no longer in the war — leaving the Germans to pour all their resources into the Western Front.
In their spring offensive of 1918 they punched a gaping hole in the British line, advancing 40 miles and taking 100,000 prisoners.
As Seely put it: ‘Unless we re-captured the Moreuil Ridge it was all over for Amiens and probably with it the Allied cause.’
But what could 1,400 men and horses do against several regiments of German infantry armed with machine guns and commanding the higher ground? Nothing, according to the local French commander.
But Seely — ‘Galloper Jack’ as his men called him — disagreed.
‘Sitting there on Warrior’s back I decided to attempt the apparently impossible — to re-capture Moreuil ridge.’
Although horses presented a large target for guns, they could deliver an attack at speed, acting as shock troops to take the enemy by surprise.
So Seely ordered one of the last great cavalry charges in history. It would be led by a group of 14 men and horses, with Seely and Warrior at their head.
No sooner had Seely given the orders, than, as he remembered: ‘Warrior took charge and … with a great leap, started off. All sensation of fear had vanished from him as he galloped on at racing speed. He bounded into the air as we passed our infantry.’
There was a hail of bullets from the enemy as they crossed the four hundred yards between the Canadian infantry and the wood. Nearly half the horses went down, but Warrior did not flinch or hesitate. On he galloped, the others thundering after him over the soft turf until they reached the trees.
A corporal jammed a lance with a red flag into the ground at the wood’s edge. This was the marker for the rest of them to head for and at once the first squadron, 80-strong, came thundering up the hill.
Behind them came squadron after squadron — four of mounted cavalry, and two dismounted. The hillside was pounded by hooves as men and horses raced towards the fighting.
Already many horses were somersaulting to the ground as the bullets found their mark. Others raced on with empty saddles as their riders were felled.
The slaughter was terrible. The Germans had been expecting tanks, not horses: they met them with machine gun fire and shells.
Captain Gordon Flowerdew, a Norfolk farmer’s boy turned Canadian rancher, led one squadron into the carnage shouting: ‘Charge!’
One of his troopers remembered that, as they galloped uphill into the bullets: ‘Everything seemed unreal — the shouting of men, the moans of the wounded, the pitiful crying of the injured and dying horses.’
Moreuil Wood became a living hell as dismounted cavalrymen fought the Germans among the trees with sword, bayonet and rifle. Flowerdew was fatally wounded and awarded a posthumous VC.
But slowly, and painfully, the Germans, despite their superior numbers and weaponry, were dislodged from the wood.
As darkness fell, Moreuil Ridge was finally in British hands. It was a turning point — after Moreuil Wood, the German offensive faltered, and their advance was checked. Amiens — and the Allied cause — was saved.
The triumph was, Seely said: ‘Not due to me, but to my horse Warrior. It was he who did not hesitate, did not flinch, though well he knew the danger from those swift bullets.’
Many brave men had died that day, and many more horses. Around three-quarters of the animals ridden into battle were slaughtered.
They lay, bleeding on the slope up to the ridge, or wandered around, reins trailing, their tattered flesh hanging in shreds until they were caught and shot to end their agony.
More than eight million horses died in World War I. The story of their suffering is now well known, thanks to Michael Morpurgo’s novel War Horse — and the hugely successful play that brings it so brilliantly to life with its utterly convincing horse puppets.
It has also been made into a film by Steven Spielberg, which opens in a few weeks’ time.
It tells the story of a fictional ‘War Horse’, Joey, who is requisitioned by the army at the start of the war, and of his devoted owner Albert, a Devon farmer’s boy who enlists in order go to the front and find his beloved Joey.
The tale is told from Joey’s viewpoint and describes the harrowing, backbreaking work undertaken by horses on the Western Front.
Warrior, like Joey, was one of the lucky horses who made it back to Britain. Twenty years after they had gone to war Seely wrote the story of Warrior, his own War Horse, as a way of paying tribute to the animal who had become his closest comrade, friend and, he was sure, saviour. It is now being republished.
What emerges is that the millions of horses caught up in the war had to endure the same terrible conditions as the men, standing in freezing mud in the bitter winters, often short of food. While the men in the trenches suffered from trench foot, the horses’ legs became a mass of sores.
Warrior was more fortunate than requisitioned horses, like Joey, who went to war with strangers. He went with his owner. The two knew and loved each other and their bond helped them through four grim years of battle.
Jack Seely had brought Warrior up from a foal on the Isle of Wight. Seely was an MP and a close friend of Winston Churchill. He had fought in the Boer War and had been a Cabinet minister, but by the time war broke out in 1914 his political career had floundered and he volunteered to serve at the Front.
Warrior went with him, sailing in the same ship. As a general’s horse he never had to pull a cart or gun as Joey did. But he still had to work hard, galloping many miles a day as Seely went from one post to another, reconnoitring positions or attending meetings, advancing and then retreating as the war that would be ‘over by Christmas’ began to go badly wrong for the Allies.
Almost immediately Warrior adapted to his new surroundings, showing no fear when shells burst nearby. Never did he attempt to bolt, even when every horse around him was killed by shells.
Nowhere was safe, but Warrior was a miraculously lucky horse. Once a stable where he was sheltering was hit by six shells, but Warrior somehow escaped unhurt. Another time the horse next to him was cut clean in half by a shell, but Warrior was untouched.
At the Battle of the Somme in 1916, Warrior was stuck fast in the mud when German aeroplanes flew low and strafed all the horses with their machine guns, but again Warrior was not hit.
At Passchendaele in 1917 a huge shell fell near him and he was completely buried under earth except for one forefoot. He was dug out, none the worse but for a slightly lame foreleg.
Frequently, when Seely had been due to ride him and could not because Warrior was lame or poorly, the horse that Seely rode instead was shot from under him or killed by a shell. Warrior became known to the soldiers as ‘The horse the Germans can’t kill’.
When he was not working, Warrior would follow Seely around like a dog, trotting at his heels. He was greeted with shouts of ‘Here comes Old Warrior’ wherever he went. Seely called him ‘my passport’, for with Warrior beneath or beside him he was always sure of a friendly welcome.
The rough Canadian ranchers and frontiersmen who made up Seely’s brigade might have reacted suspiciously to the plummy vowels of an upper-class Englishman and politician. But they immediately warmed to the gentle bay horse and, because they loved him, they loved Seely, too.
Seely observed that, despite their sufferings with the cold and mud, the rats and lice, soldiers always brightened at the sight of the horses.
‘One of the finest things about that indomitable creature, the soldier of the frontline, was his invariable kindness and gentleness at all times to the horses,’ wrote Seely.
‘Again and again I have seen a man risk his life and, indeed, lose it, for the sake of his horse.’
Just as the fictional Joey had a great friend, a horse named Topthorn, to whom he stuck closely, Warrior became very attached to a pony named Akbar who belonged to Seely’s son Frank.
Frank had followed his father to war as soon as he had left school.
A shy, dreamy boy, he wrote to his father: ‘I hope you will not mind, but I thought I should not remain at home, while other people are being shot.’
Seely, while proud of his son’s sentiments, was keen to keep him from the hell of the trenches and appointed him as his Aide-de-Camp. But Frank was soon transferred to an infantry regiment and bid his father farewell, leaving the beloved Akbar behind with the Cavalry.
‘We had a last gallop together along the sands, Warrior and Akbar racing each other … my son asked me to take care of Akbar and I replied that Warrior would see to that. Frank was killed not long afterwards while leading his company.’
It was Warrior to whom Seely turned when he heard the devastating news, riding his beloved horse north through the night till he got to the battlefield of Arras where he wandered about to ‘find some trace of my boy’. But duty came before grief and the next day Seely rode back, desolate, to his brigade.
The day after the successful charge at Moreuil, Warrior trod on a piece of flint and went lame, so Seely took another horse into battle. That horse was killed and Seely was gassed and invalided back to Britain, leaving Warrior behind in France.
Although he had a young family at home in the Isle of Wight, Seely begged to be allowed to return to the Front, explaining to the Secretary of State for War: ‘I had left my horse in France, from whom I had never been separated all through the War, and could he not send me back?’
It was many months before Seely was fit enough to return. By then the war was all but over.
Joy at the Allied victory was tempered by the loss of so many good friends. As Seely wrote: ‘Nearly all Warrior’s comrades were killed, and nearly all of mine, but we both survived — largely because of him.’
On November 11, 1918, an Armistice was signed. Warrior returned to the peaceful pastures of the Isle of Wight and a hero’s welcome.
At a victory parade in Hyde Park, Seely’s Canadian comrades-in-arms greeted their favourite horse with the shout: ‘Here comes old Warrior!’
Warrior went on to win a point-to-point race and to enjoy a happy retirement, petted by Seely’s children and grandchildren and celebrated as a local hero.
But in 1941, with the world at war again and Warrior, at 33, unable to carry out any war work, some began to mutter at the fact the old horse was getting a daily supply of corn, while humans were kept on such short rations. Seely reluctantly agreed that Warrior should be put down, but could not bring himself to be there at the end.
The Times and the London Evening Standard ran obituaries of the great war horse, and he was also immortalised by the famous painter Alfred Munnings who, as a war artist attached to Seely’s troops, painted the magnificent Warrior on many occasions.
Seely died six years later. And to the end he never forgot Warrior, the horse he called his ‘faithful friend, who never failed and never feared’.