Sunday, May 30, 2010

Remembering The War Horses This Memorial Day

This is a an old story from the Daily Mail (2007) but it is still stunning to read and consider this Memorial Day. 

Forgotten Heroes: A million horses were sent to fight in the Great War - only 62,000 came back

Daily Mail (London)
 09 November 2007
A great horse rears amid the flash and boom of bombardment; careers in terror from the path of an advancing tank; struggles to free itself from treacherous swirls of barbed wire.

Here are images of man's exploitation of animals carried to bloody extremity amid the horrors of World War I.
It was bold to set out to depict such scenes on a London stage. But the National Theatre is enjoying a triumph with its production of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse, the story of Joey, beloved mount of a Devon farmer's son, translated into a beast of battle and burden in France.

This is a children's story in the tradition of Black Beauty, which makes adults sob, too.

The actors play their parts well, but the stars are the horses, larger-than-life wicker creations, modelled with conviction by the Handspring Puppet Company.

The puppeteers and directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris have studied and captured every equine movement and gesture.

Each horse has its own personality, cavorting with balletic grace. The performance, more pantomie than play, displays the spirit of one of the great tragedies of history.

Few pictures show the suffering horses went through in the war

We know that World War I killed some ten million fighting men, almost 800,000 of them British.

Much less known is the fate of a million hapless horses, sent to France between 1914 and 1918. Only 62,000 returned. War Horse offers a glimpse of the experiences that befell them.

Man has been exploiting animals for centuries. But there is a pathos about the plight of horses conscripted to suffer in conflicts which they, unlike their riders, lack any means of understanding.

Many paintings depict warriors charging into battle with swords held high, wild-eyed mounts stretching out their necks as they surge full-tilt towards the enemy.

Yet few pictures show the consequences: battlefields on which abandoned, maimed, eviscerated animals wander in agony and bewilderment, lacking even a kindly bullet to free them from their misery.

Generals list their losses in men and guns. Few have ever troubled to mention the horses which perished in the service of their victories.

One of the few who did notice was 19th-century surgeon Sir Astley Cooper.

After Wellington's triumph at Waterloo in 1815, the wounded horses of the Household Cavalry were sold at auction in Belgium.

Sir Astley bought 12 of the worst cases and had them shipped to England.

There, he devoted months to their care, removing bullets and sewing up sword slashes. Afterwards, at his country park, he loved to watch the great beasts form in line, charge and gallop at their own pleasure.

Few of the horses of World War I were so rewarded. In their thousands, they were borne away to France and Flanders, cast into shells, wire and mud, where they suffered wounds and death alongside the men who rode and drove them.

In the first months of the war, cavalry sometimes attempted charges in the old fashion, which ended in catastrophe in the face of machine-guns.

Throughout the years of stalemate which followed on the Western Front, horses pulled guns, ration carts and ambulances by day and night, often in terrible conditions.

Captain Julian Grenfell, who died on the battlefield, wrote pityingly in the spring of 1915 of a soldier's apprehension before "going over the top": "In dreary, doubtful, waiting hours, Before the brazen frenzy starts, the horses show him nobler powers; O patient eyes, courageous hearts!"

Some cavalrymen in France, however, were much less sympathetic to their mounts. "The horse", complained Lt Alan Lascelles of the Bedfordshire Yeomanry, "though a noble animal, is a ... tiresome companion ... when you start touring the country with him.

"He debars you from spending the night anywhere in the neighbourhood of civilisation because he takes up so much room.

He is unable to clean or feed himself, and will leave you altogether unless firmly secured; he drags you miles through mud that he has churned up with his feet and then refuses to drink at the end of it.

"He wears a mass of impedimenta with an unlimited capacity for getting dirty and unserviceable; he will bite and kick you on the smallest provocation.

"Though he is all very well in peacetime, I am beginning to think that the day when he is declared obsolete for war purposes will be a bright one for the human race."

Ungrateful man! His horse never sought its role in the most terrible conflict in human history. The British Army shipped nearly six-million tonnes of fodder across the Channel during the war - slightly more than the weight of ammunition dispatched - but there was never enough.

Lest we forget: Generals list the soldiers that were killed in battle. Few have ever troubled to mention the horses which perished in the service of their victories

When corn ran short, animals suffered from emaciation. Thousands were left lame by nails and blades on the battlefield.

Between the Somme in July 1916 and the Armistice in November 1918, the British Army recorded 58,090 horses killed and 77,410 wounded by gunfire; 211 were killed and 2,220 wounded by poison gas; while several hundred were killed by aeroplane bombs.

As the carnage grew, British stables could no longer supply the Army's needs, as many horses were needed at home for farms and transport.

Animals were bought in Canada and the U.S., to be shipped across the Atlantic.

Many of the horses and ponies which served with Allenby's army, fighting the Turks in Palestine, came from Australia. Australian cavalry took part in some of the last traditional charges in history, during the advance on Jerusalem in 1917.

Many soldiers who found themselves tending and riding horses lacked experience.

The great-grandfather of Tom Morris, co-director of the National Theatre's War Horse, sent a long letter to his own son, off to war in 1914, explaining the care of his mount:

"When campaigning," wrote farm manager Matthew Parrington, "there are lots of little things you can do with horses which may save you a lot of trouble and a lot of danger.

"First, about food: you will have that all in your instructions, but [you should give him] 15lb good oats and about ten to 12lb of clean hay or other bulky food per day.

"Also, when you get the chance, give a few beetroot or other roots cut up in their corn. Carrots are the best.

"A horse should be fed three times a day but you must feed when you can, water as often as possible but never just before fast work.

"When you off-saddle at night let them drink as much as they like before food when they come in tired."

Parrington, a Devon man, gave pages of advice on the care of horses, a lore he knew well. Most wartime soldiers did not.

They overloaded their mounts, neglected saddle sores, lamed beasts by carelessness, caused them colic by misfeeding. And all before they got to work, dispatching cavalry, artillery and supply columns into the path of shot and shell.

Here, now, is Morpurgo in his best-selling book from which the stage production of War Horse is adapted, describing the experience of battle by his horse-hero, Joey: "'Wire', I heard Trooper Warren whisper. 'Oh God, Joey, they said the wire would be gone, they said the guns would deal with the wire. Oh my God.'

"We were into a canter now and still there was no sound nor sight of any enemy. The troopers were shouting at an invisible foe, leaning over their horses' necks, sabres stretched out in front of them.

"I galvanised myself into a gallop to keep up with Topthorn, and as I did so, the first terrible shells fell among us, and the machine-guns opened up.

"All around me men cried and fell to the ground, horses reared and screamed in an agony of fear and pain. The ground erupted on either side of me, throwing horses and riders clear into the air."

I won't spoil the story by revealing its end.

Here, instead, is a real-life account of the 7th Dragoon Guards charging during the Battle of the Somme on 14 July 1916, as seen by a British gunnery officer: 'An incredible sight, an unbelievable sight.

They galloped up with their lances and pennants flying.

"They were falling all the way, as the German guns played on the infantry. They simply galloped on through all that, horses and men dropping with no hope against the machine-guns. It was a magnificent sight. Tragic."

Amazingly, that morning a few horsemen reached the German lines, and impaled several of the enemy on their lances.

But then machine-guns got to work on the horses once more. Soon, the few survivors of the 7th Dragoons were trickling back to the British lines.

It was madness that such things happened, during a 20th-century war in which every sensible soldier recognised that horsed cavalry were doomed.

But happen they did, creating the legend which has inspired War Horse. When the war ended in November 1918, few horses returned to Britain. Most were sold, ending their careers on French dinner tables.

The same happened again in World War II. In 1939, the rural part-time soldiers of the Yeomanry regiments were shipped from Britain to the Middle East with their horses.

In 1942, when the Yeomanry were put into tanks, the animals became redundant. They were auctioned in Palestine and Egypt.

In 1945, with British sentimentality a charity was established in Cairo named the Brooke Hospital, to save horses from the worst cruelties of local life.

The Brooke survives today, a tribute to our nation's feelings about its animals, even after treating them so badly in the service of war.

War Horse is a worthy memorial to the animal victims of the 20th century's great global cataclysms. The horses are its stars, taking more curtain calls than the human actors.

If you see it, don't be fooled by the fact it was written for children. However old and cynical you think you are, be sure to take plenty of hankies.

Memorial Day and the Faith of Our Fathers

This just popped up on an Associated Press -- The caption says it all. This Memorial Day, let us all remember the men and women defending our nation and, as this photo beautifully shows, the faith that sustains them in that effort:

Feb. 21, 2010 - Father Carl Subler, U.S. Cpt. Chaplain from Versailles, Ohio blesses a rosary of U.S. Army Sgt. Paul Bliss from Willits, Calif., of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, at the end of a religious service in an outpost in the Badula Qulp area, West of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan. Bliss was a rodeo cowboy before going to war; he rode bulls for fun and money, and got tossed and trampled plenty of times. So far, through two tours in Iraq and now a year-long deployment in Afghanistan that ends this summer, he has escaped serious injury. (AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito, File)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Teddy's Playmate...

I have always been fascinated by Theodore Roosevelt's friendship with Leonard Wood. So, a little poking around and I came up with a wonderful biography of the great man: Leonard Wood: Rough Rider, Surgeon, Architect of American Imperialism (New York University Press). Talk about the All-American boy: Apache hunter, commander of Rough Riders (and Roosevelt) in Cuba, surgeon, football player (he played on the first Georgia Tech team while stationed in Atlanta with the Army - he signed up for a wood shop class so he could play... and he was married with a son at the time!). This book really helps to further understand the time, the people (especially Roosevelt) and the rise of the American Empire.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Teddy Roosevelt - War Lover

Been a while but we're back! Reading a fascinating new book by Evan Thomas - "The War Lovers." I've read a number of biographies of Theodore Roosevelt but Thomas takes a new take and offers a new perspective to Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and the entire period of history.

Had no idea that Roosevelt and Lodge rode almost every morning in Rock Creek Park -- can you imagine being able to go for a ride every morning??? But it also goes to Roosevelts determination to command troops in the Spanish-American War. Good read.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Another Interesting Read...

Sorry, one more good book (or more precisely) series of books on the history of cavalry for those of you who are bit obsessive about the subject: A History of the British Cavalry (8 Vol) by The Marquess of Angelsey F.S.A. (yes, eight volumes and no, I haven't read all of them yet). Written in a witty and detailed style, it is the definitive history of the British Army on horseback -- from Europe, to Africa to India and back again.

The good news is that the rains seem to be letting up... maybe a long trail ride this weekend?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

If the Trails are Muddy, Give Me a Good Book...

For those of you on the East Coast, mid-Atlantic area, it's a been a strangely wet summer so far. I can't remember a summer with so much rain (almost seven inches this month and it's only June 21st!). Of course, that means the trails are awfully muddy here... and since the rules around here on the trail easements are "Please don't tear up trails if they are already muddy"), that means we're all stuck in the stables. Anyone else out there getting frustrated over not being able to ride???

Well, there I have one great consolation to turn to: the comfort of a a good book (and maybe a nice cigar along with it). I just finished in the last few weeks three excellent books and highly recommend them for those of you who enjoy the horseback riding and the history of horses in history. All three were published within the last year and each captures different aspects of the magnificent history of horses in battle (and how they have changed the course of history).

The first, Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton (Scribner Books) is a rich, fast moving account of US Special Forces who secretly went into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks in advance of the full-scale US invasion. America's smartest, bravest and most highly trained soldiers, they were ready for anything -- except perhaps for the surprise of learning the way they would move with the Northern Alliance forces on horseback, sometimes for 14 hours at a time over some of the toughest terrain in the world. Of course, they adopted, learned quickly (no small feat when you consider most of the horses were stallions. The passages of them riding high on thin mountain passages with feisty stallions kicking and stomping at each other leaves the reader holding their breath for multiple pages) and beat an overwhelming enemy (they were outnumbered most of the time 40-1). And yes, there are some great details of what is now the "last" US Army Calvary charge -- US Special Forces galloping across the plains with their Northern Alliance comrades, charging Taliban tanks and machine gun emplacements as they simultaneously direct GPS guided bombing runs. A great read and a brilliant reminder of brains, determination and guts of the US military. Finally, and most appropriately, this book sheds new light on a tremendously brave and good man -- the first man to die in battle after 9/11, CIA officer Mike Spann. A true American hero.

The second book, Mounted Warriors by Gene Smith (John Wiley & Sons, Inc) is a fun history of the horses in war. Smith writes his history in a beautiful literary, almost poetic, style, covering a huge swath of history from time times of Alexander the Great up to Afghan charge of US Special Forces. The chapters covering the history of cavalry during the Civil War is particularly superb, bringing Jeb Stuart to new light while introducing us to another great but less-known cavalry hero, US Union Calvary Captain Charles Russell Lowell. Great and most memorable stories.

And finally, War Horse: A History of the Military Horse and Rider by Louis DiMarco (Westholme Publishing). Alternatively thrilling, highly educational (if only my college history textbooks read like this!) and a source for hundreds of other cavalry tomes (for me, the bibliography is like a treasure map of future reads), DiMarco has provided us horse lovers a great service writing this book. I finished the book two weeks ago and have found myself picking it up almost daily as a reference for other research I'm doing.

I highly recommend all three of these fine books. They've kept me a happy state in an otherwise soggy summer! If you have any good cavalry reads -- history or fiction -- I'd be most pleased to hear your recommendations.

Sunday, June 14, 2009