Museum to tell tales of forgotten war horses

by Reuters
Tuesday, 18 October 2011 16:31 GMT

By Alice Baghdjian

LONDON, Oct 18 (Reuters) - Joey the horse, Jimson the mule and other forgotten four-legged war heroes are to be remembered in the first exhibition to focus on war horses in British military history, the National Army Museum in London said on Tuesday.

The exhibition, "War Horse: Fact and Fiction", based on the popular children's book "War Horse" by Michael Morpurgo, explores the real-life stories of the millions of horses and mules who bore officers into battle in the Charge of the Light Brigade or trudged through fields of mud in World War One to transport ammunition.

"Horses played a big role in World War One, and that was one of the things that came across to us when we were preparing for the exhibition," curator, Pip Dodd, told Reuters.

"We were amazed at how much we had in our collection as little material survives about the horses that did the pulling and the carrying -- normally there tends only to be material on officers' horses," Dodd said.

"We wanted to look at the forgotten heroes, as three quarters of the horses used by the army were carrying and pulling, not ridden by officers in the cavalry, and their story is one that should be told," he said.

Hand-written notebooks by poet and soldier Siegfried Sassoon on horse care and the riding crop of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who ordered the fateful British offensive at the Somme, are among the many artefacts on display, as well as three medals awarded to Jimson the mule -- the only mule to receive medals from his regiment.

Jimson worked in India in the 1890s before being moved to serve in the Boer War, Dodd said.

"We're not sure why Jimson was awarded the medals, but it was probably for something like carrying ammunition - something really vital that saved men's lives," Dodd said.

"We also have a photo of Jimson with his medals. His handler is standing proudly next to him wearing his own medals, but he doesn't have as many as Jimson!"

The exhibition is the latest offshoot inspired by Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel "War Horse", the story of Joey, a red bay farm horse and one of the 6 million horses sent to work on the World War One battlefields.

The children's tale has sparked recent widespread interest in the role of horses in war, forming the basis for both a West End production with life-sized puppets and a film directed by Steven Spielberg, due to be released in January 2012.

"Millions of horses were killed in World War One, so it's not a comfortable topic," Morpurgo told Reuters.

"A lot of people shy away from the subject and we don't like to think about it -- many people wrote to me and told me they could not finish the book because it was too uncomfortable for them to read," he said.

However, the widespread success of Joey the horse's story comes from its capacity to personalise war for the reader, Morpurgo said.

"War Horse works because it enables people to go back to the time of World War One but somehow personalises it. War is so great a horror that it is difficult to understand, but if you personalise a tragedy it allows you to make sense of it.

The horses were the innocent victims of war, like the soldiers, and Joey represents this."

The exhibition War Horse: Fact and Fiction will open at the National Army Museum on Oct. 22. (Editing by Paul Casciato)

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