Remembering the horses
This week's column is by Language Editor Joanna Westcombe.
It's all quiet this morning here on the western edge of Munich. It's August — holiday time — and many families are either away on holiday together or enjoying the luxury of not having to be out of the house by 7.30. It's all very peaceful.
One hundred years ago, the opposite was true. All over Europe, thousands of families were watching their young men eagerly sign up to join their friends from sports clubs and churches to go to war.
As Colin Beaven tells us this month, one story about an English boy and a horse in the First World War has become well-known. Children's writer Michael Morpurgo wrote his book War Horse in 1982. The story is told from the point of view of a young horse called Joey, who grows up on a farm with a boy called Albert. When Albert finds out that his beloved Joey has been taken off to war, he runs away, joins up, and goes to France to look for him. In the course of the story, both horse and boy experience the horrors of war, and Joey becomes a trusted and loved companion of both a German officer and a young French girl.
War Horse has been made into a film, too, but it is the play that is really worth seeing. The horses are represented by puppets, which sounds rather cheap and kitschy until you see them. They are so mesmerizingly graceful and lifelike, and they are handled so expertly that the performance becomes, as Colin says, "a ... tribute from humans to horses".
(Also be sure to watch this fascinating TED talk with the puppeteers. The website offers an interactive transcript.)
Around a million horses left Britain to join the war in France. More than 250,000 of them were killed, and most of the others never came back to Britain. In fact, many of them weren't from Britain in the first place. Large numbers were brought over, some semi-wild, from North and South America. Many, though, were working horses and family mounts from farms and estates and villages in the English countryside.
On the BBC website, you can hear and read about the camps that Colin mentions, called remount facilities, and about the horses from home and abroad that were looked after there and prepared for war work in the cavalry or pulling wagons. At one of these facilities, just south-west of London, only women worked. This must have raised many a bushy Edwardian eyebrow.
You can see War Horse in Berlin (it's called Gefährten in German) until September. It's an unforgettable show. And we shouldn't forget. When I think about the puppets in this production, I find it almost impossible to reconcile the fact that humans can breathe life into something so intricate and clever and wonderful on a theatre stage and at the same time bring death and so much suffering on the world stage, now as 100 years ago.
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