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The war horses who went into battle

PUBLISHED: 15:34 29 October 2018 | UPDATED: 15:34 29 October 2018

Joey, the equine star of the National Theatre production, War Horse. Picture: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

Joey, the equine star of the National Theatre production, War Horse. Picture: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

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As War Horse returns to the National Theatre to mark the centenary of Armistice Day, we remember the war horses.

The ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade bt Richard Caton Woodville Jr. Picture: Wikimedia CommonsThe ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade bt Richard Caton Woodville Jr. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

The Charge of the Light Brigade, in 1854, evocatively described in verse by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, begins:

Half a league, half a league, half a league onward

All in the valley of Death rode the six hundred.

After the notorious military disaster the number of men killed or missing (possibly taken prisoner) totalled 156 and the number wounded, 122. The number of horses killed or destroyed because of their wounds was 335.

Comanche, survivor of the battle of the Little Bighorn. Picture: John CH Grabill/Wikimedia CommonsComanche, survivor of the battle of the Little Bighorn. Picture: John CH Grabill/Wikimedia Commons

Coinciding with the centenary of Armistice Day, War Horse, the hit National Theatre production, is coming back to the South Bank in November. Based on the book by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse tells the story of, Joey, who is requisitioned for active service in the Great War. From the green pastures of Devon, Joey is shipped to the mud and gore of the battlefields.

The war horse holds an important place in history.

In the face of so much loss of human life in the Great War, not much thought was given to the horses until more recently.

Warrior, from the Isle of Wight, was six-years-old when he went to war on the Western Front in 1914 with Winston Churchill’s great friend, General Jack Seely. The stallion was active in many famous battles including those at the Somme and Ypres and he came back four years later. Warrior was subjected to machine gun attacks by air, was buried under debris and got stuck in mud at Passchendaele, and was twice trapped under the burning beams of his stables.

Weeligton's horse, Copenhagen in retiremen tpainted by Samuel Spode. Picture: Wikimedia CommonsWeeligton's horse, Copenhagen in retiremen tpainted by Samuel Spode. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

But he survived. Eight million other horses and mules did not.

Returning with Jack Seely to his native Isle of Wight in 1918, he lived on until the grand old age of 33, even winning a point to point.

His obituary in the Evening Standard in 1941 read ‘Horse the Germans Could Not Kill’.

In September 2014, 100 years after Warrior went to war, he was posthumously awarded the PDSA Dickin medal, created to recognise the gallantry of animals during the Second World War.

Napoleon on his horse, Marengo, by Jacques-Louis David. Picture: Wikimedia CommonsNapoleon on his horse, Marengo, by Jacques-Louis David. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

He is one of just four horses accorded the honour, the others were on the Home Front during the Second World War. One of them was police horse Upstart. The citation reads: “While on patrol duty in Bethnal Green a flying bomb exploded within 75 yards, showering both horse and rider with broken glass and debris. Upstart was completely unperturbed and remained quietly on duty with his rider... until the incident had been dealt with.”

Here are seven of the most famous war horses in history:

Bucephalus belonged to Alexander the Great and accompanied him in several battles. Bucephalus died from injuries sustained in battle in India in 326 BC. Bucephala a town on the banks of the river Jhelum now in modern day Pakistan was built by Alexander in memory of his beloved friend.

Chetak was the horse of a Rajput King of India, Maharana Pratap. The stallion was injured and killed in battle in June 1576. Pratap loved the horse so much he erected a monument to it in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Chetak is referred to as the “blue horse” in many ballads and poems.

Kasztanka belonged to Polish war hero Jozef Pilsudski. She was purchased by Pilsudski in 1914 and carried him in several battles during the First World War. Her final ride was on the Polish Independence day on Saxon square, Warsaw on November 11, 1927. She died just two weeks later

Marengo was Napoleon Bonaparte’s horse. The Egyptian stallion was named after the battle of Marengo fought between Austria and France. Marengo was ridden by Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo in 1815. The British won the battle and Marengo was captured by an officer, Lord Petre and was taken to England where he lived till his death in 1831. His skeleton is an exhibit in the National Army Museum at Chelsea.

Bearing the weight of Napoleon’s opposing commander at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, Copenhagen. He was named the second battle of Copenhagen where the British were victorious. Wellington acquired the horse in 1813 and rode him in several military campaigns. The horse was retired to the Duke’s stables after Waterloo.

Despite being wounded, Comanche carried Captain Myles Keogh of the 7th Cavalry in the battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Comanche, who was found alive but badly wounded two days after the battle, was the only survivor of the 7th Cavalry at Bighorn. When Comanche died in 1891 he was given a military burial; one of the only two horses to receive one.

Sergeant Reckless was bought by the US Marine Corps in 1952 and was used for carrying supplies and evacuating soldiers during the Korean War. The mare was extremely intelligent and was known for making solo trips where, during the battle for Outpost Vegas in 1953, she carried out 51 solo trips in one single day. She was given the commission of a sergeant in 1954 and subsequently retired.

(sources: Wikipedia amazingthingsinthe
world.com warriorwarhorse.com)

War Horse is at the Lyttelton Theatre, London, from November 8 to January 5 2019.

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