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Unshakeable courage of the real War Horses: The eight million forgotten animals who were killed on the frontline

They are images which remind us  of the crucial role played by the  forgotten warriors of World War I — the four-legged ones. 

They are also images which run counter to the statistics. A horse was actually more likely to die than its rider. 

While ten million men would be killed in the carnage of World War I, the casualty rate was proportionately considerably higher among the warhorses — of which some eight million perished on all sides. 

Of the one million horses which left Britain for the Western Front,  just 60,000 returned. 

And even those animals might never have made it home had it not been for a vigorous campaign by  charities and the Press to save them from French and Belgian abbattoirs.

A few months from now, cinemas worldwide will be packed for Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited film of Michael Morpurgo’s bestseller, War Horse. 

The first official trailer for the film has been released, and it’s already generating talk of Oscars. 

The stage version, meanwhile, has been breaking West End records since it opened in 2007 (the Queen dropped in unannounced in 2009), and is now enjoying similar success on Broadway. 

But a powerful and haunting new book tells the true story of what happened to the real four-legged troops. And there isn’t much of a happy ending in The War Horses.

As author Simon Butler explains, this was not just ‘the first and last global conflict in which the horse played a vital role’, but also a war which changed the entire relationship between society and the horse.

A nation which had depended on domestic horsepower up until 1914 suddenly lost its workhorses to the front and had to find mechanised alternatives. By 1918, there was no going back.

His book contains accounts of the military impressment squads which would descend on a village, just like the naval press gangs of yesteryear, and round up all the horses for service. 

Some of the photographs show the bond between horse and man — the men of the Royal Scots Greys watering their animals in a French mill pool, or soldiers on both sides fitting equine gas masks.

Many images show the crucial role of the workhorse/warhorse in shifting the millions of tons of rations and ammunitions up to the front line and bringing back the wounded. 

But there are other images of horses caught up in the hell of modern warfare — some floundering in the mud, others lying injured in the aftermath of battle and many beyond hope.

Horses were easier targets than men, and you could do more damage to the enemy’s supply lines if you hit the horses,’ says  Mr Butler, a publisher who lives on Dartmoor, just a couple of miles from where Spielberg filmed War Horse.

Nearly a century after the ‘war to end all wars’, it seems that we are finally giving due recognition to a group of comrades who never gave up and never complained for the simple reason that they could not.

As General Sir Frank Kitson writes in his foreword to the book: ‘As a person who has enjoyed the company of many horses over the years, I thank heaven that I have never had to take one to war.’