As anticipation builds over the release of Steven Spielberg’s new Hollywood blockbuster War Horse, leading animal charity The Blue Cross has opened its archives for the first time to reveal the real-life stories of the horses who fought and died in the First World War.
The film adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s much-loved War Horse story is tipped to be a Christmas hit, being released in the USA on Christmas Day and in the UK on 13 January.
But the real story of the millions of horses, ponies and mules, who played a vital role in the cavalry and hauling guns or ammunition, has a far from Hollywood ending.
Launched today (20 December), The Blue Cross’s previously unseen War Horse collection – packed full of photographs, artefacts and audio-visual materials – gives a rare insight into life on the battlefields.
As described in the fictional War Horse story, many horses were enlisted from loving homes in the UK and hundreds of thousands went on to be killed or injured in battle or became ill as a result of the hostile conditions on the front line.
With medical provisions in short supply, The Blue Cross Fund offered a lifeline to those brave animals and their masters who cared deeply for them. The charity collected donations from animal lovers across the world to fund horse hospitals, ambulances and veterinary supplies, marked with a blue cross to distinguish them from the red cross facilities for injured men.
Over 50,000 horses and 10,000 dogs were treated by The Blue Cross in France alone during the four year conflict, and veterinary chests containing vital drugs and other comforts were sent to over 3,500 units of the British army, as well as our allies.
And after the war, when many of our war heroes were sold off cheaply abroad, the charity joined the campaign to save them – working with Mrs Dorothy Brooke to buy back and rescue over 4,000 old war horses and mules in Belgium and across the world
Steve Goody, director of external affairs at The Blue Cross, said: “We are immensely proud of The Blue Cross’s history helping the brave animals of war, which gave us our name today. As a tribute to all the real-life war horses, we decided to open up our archives to share some of the amazing stories and pictures of these extraordinary animals, as well as the people who went beyond the call of duty to help them.”
The Blue Cross’s free online archive includes letters from soldiers during the war and photographs of injured horses being treated by Blue Cross vets behind the front lines.
It also includes some of the incredibly moving images and poetry that were used to help raise money for the Blue Cross Fund during the war, such as the heartbreaking Goodbye Old Man image by Italian artist Fortunino Matania, that was commissioned by the charity during the war and has since been reproduced all over the world.
Audio slideshows feature interviews with Pip Dodd, curator of the War Horse: Fact & Fiction exhibition at the National Army Museum in London, and Ruth Turner, whose grandfather won a military medal for his bravery and kindness to horses during the First World War.
Steve Goody added: “Anyone who has been inspired by the plight of war horses – whether in books, stage or screen – should take a moment to visit our website and learn more about these poor animals who were plucked from their homes and sent into a living hell. With the help of the British public, The Blue Cross did all we could to ease their suffering, and today we still need your help to care for horses and pets in need.”
Today, The Blue Cross focuses on helping needy animals in the UK, funded entirely by public donations. Its nationwide network of animal adoption centres take in homeless and abandoned pets and horses and find them loving new homes, while its animal hospitals treat the pets of people who can’t afford a private vet.
To find out more or make a donation, please visit the website or phone 0300 790 9903.
The Blue Cross War Horse collection is now available to view at: www.bluecross.org.uk/warhorse