The horse world’s attention has been riveted on France for the past week as the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games burst onto our computers, tablets and phones. You couldn’t escape it, and throughout the stream of images and videos were reminders of France, and how closely tied that nation is to horses and equestrian culture.
No matter how you do the math, France was probably home to more horses than any place on the planet 100 years ago, when World War I ripped that nation to pieces and tunneled it into trenches and bomb craters.
It was horses who pulled and carried things through the mud and around the craters, where motorized vehicles couldn’t go.
It may not have been a war for the cavalry, but it was a war for practical horse transport and power.
Some people have never forgotten. The bravery and hard work of the World War I horses has been praised in song, play, novel, poem and legend. The movie, book and play War Horse is by far the best known of these, but it is also the most recent.
The story of World War I’s war horses isn’t over yet. The latest chapter was written today.
At London’s Imperial War Museum, a special medal ceremony recognized a horse that might otherwise have been forgotten. Warrior was a brave and gallant cavalry horse in World War I and he received the PDSI Dickins Medal on behalf of all war horses.
Great Britain’s Honorary PDSA Dickin Medal was created specially to honor animals that served in World War I.
It might be even more meaningful to know that PDSA stands for People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. The charity was started during World War I to help care for the sick animals of poor people in London’s East End. Welfare pioneer Maria Dickin built a horse-drawn vet clinic to travel to the patients. Soon, she had a fleet. By World War II, her work was defined and endorsed by an Act of Parliament.
Today PDSA is the largest private employer of veterinarians and vet nurses in Britain. Maria Dickin would have approved of what went on today in London.
From the Medal announcement:
“Warrior’s remarkable story gives us a brutal but uplifting account of the hardships and tribulations that military animals faced during the war. He saw some of the bloodiest and most notorious battles from this infamous campaign.
“Warrior arrived on the Western Front on 11 August 1914 with his owner, General Jack Seely. As Commander of three regiments of the Canadian Cavalry, ‘Galloping Jack’ Seely was well liked and respected, but the men’s respect for the General’s horse was, if anything, even greater.”
Warrior was a survivor. He saw action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He was dug out of the mud at Passchendaele, twice trapped under the burning beams of his stables and many times charged towards the enemy, only to witness the men and his fellow cavalry horses cut down by gunfire and shells.
Warrior served on the Front Line throughout World War I. He displayed gallantry and devotion to duty in action and continued to be his master’s protector and an inspiration to the men he served alongside.
Warrior stands as a truly brave representative of all the animals that served and the eight million horses that perished in the four years of the Great War.
They called Warrior “the horse the Germans couldn’t kill”.
Coming home was rare for a war horse in World War I, and it would have taken a man of Seely’s rank, wealth and influence to make sure his horse made it home. Moreover, Warrior enjoyed a long life of leisure after his war service and lived to be 33.
General Seely’s grandson is racing journalist Brough Scott, MBE. At today’s ceremony he said: “My family and I are more than honored that Warrior has been given this award on behalf of all animals that also served; we are truly humbled.”
What happened today is the latest in a domino of similar events around the world, as the role of horses in war is being recognized. In the United States, we have two adult and one children’s book ready in time for holiday gift-giving about Sergeant Reckless, a Korean War horse with the United States Marines. Statues of her have been erected in Virginia and California.
The American Quarter Horse Association Museum recently hosted an exhibition about the US Remount Service and its role in providing horses for the military here.
Wherever you look, you will find reverence and respect for the horses who served in war. Inspired by book, play and film, perhaps, but nonetheless meaningful and honest. This positive image of the horse as a partner should be one that we all encourage and build on so that the public knows that war horses didn’t go extinct 100 years ago.
The strong hearts and gallant spirits of the war horse live on in our sport and race and companion and work horses today. The bravery gene is alive and well; luckily we don’t have to call on it very often these days.