First published by Michael Morpurgo as a children's book in 1982, War Horse is something of an unlikely success story. When it was first released, the book sold comparatively few copies. That all changed, however, when in 2005 War Horse was first performed on stage by the National Theatre Company. Today, Morpurgo's unassuming short story has sold over one million copies and the play is currently being performed in theatres worldwide; it has even been turned into a feature-length film by legendary director Steven Spielberg.
Given its phenomenal success, you have to ask why, and indeed if, War Horse deserves such attention. The plot itself might not seem very unusual. War Horse is set during the First World War, and follows the lives of soldiers fighting on the frontline, as well as ordinary citizens whose lives have been turned upside down by the war. What makes it special is that Joey, the narrator, is actually a horse. The other main character is Alfie, Joey's best friend and owner, who watches helplessly as Joey is sold to the British army. There Joey joins millions of other men and horses in one of the most devastating conflicts in modern European history.
Having loved horses for as long as I can remember, it's no surprise that I really enjoyed reading War Horse. More unexpected were the reactions of my friends when we went to see the play at the theatre. None of them are particularly 'horsey'; in fact, some of them have never seen a horse in real life. As the curtain fell, however, every single one of us was in floods of tears. Somehow, over the course of the play the puppets used to represent Joey and his fellow war horses seemed to come to life. For a few hours, we forgot where and who we were - we felt like we were right there, with them, a hundred years ago.
Despite being a fictional story, Joey's account of trench warfare is not only incredibly moving, but also, and most interestingly, historically accurate. Horses played a vital role for armies during WWI; they transported impossibly heavy machine guns through cloying mud, rescued injured soldiers from the front and led cavalry charges. Throughout the war, over eight million horses died.
Last Tuesday, the 11th November, was Armistice Day; a day on which we remember all those who fought and died during the First World War. Amongst the gathering gloom of ever longer November nights and premature Christmas displays in shop windows, it's easy to get caught up in the excitement of approaching festivities. But stories like War Horse remind us, year round, how important it is to remember those who fought in the First World War. Even a century later, there are some stories from which we still have many lessons to learn.
Have you heard of War Horse? Would you like to read the book or watch the play?