The Romantic vision of cavalry during the Great War: 'Cavalry and Tanks at Arras, 1918' by Lieutenant Alfred Bastien

I’m not sure if this constitutes a recommendation or a warning, but last night Channel 4 showed a new World War I documentary entitled, ‘War Horse: The Real Story’. This program is now available for viewers to watch again online, on 4 On Demand. If you are interested in a documentary that promises to tell the “extraordinary, moving story” of the horses used in the Great War, “beginning with the mass call-up of horses from every farm and country estate in the land”, I suggest you take a look.

I caught a large chunk of the show last night. It does contain some interesting background information about the cavalry and the perils faced by these men and their horses, and some of the footage shown is certainly illustrative of the horrors of the war– a shot of the Hawthorn ridge mine exploding, for example. As far as it goes, there’s some interesting and useful information here to give literature students a sense of historical context.

But… but. It’s difficult to watch a documentary like this and not feel a sense of horror at the prospect of all the low-grade, uninspired documentaries about the Great War that will swamp our television screens over the next six years, as we mark the centenary of the war. The narration of the show, when not downright offensive, caught exactly the wrong tone in speaking about the war.

Offensive? Try this on for size, when talking about Passchendaele, one of the bloodiest of all the late battles of the war (please read with a softly mournful tone, as if telling a four year old that their pet guinea pig had just died): at Passchendaele, “the horses suffered equally alongside the men”. Really. Really?

This was a statement of such cosmic ignorance and such utter lack of empathy with the subject in hand that I had to switch the television off immediately: I find this beats having to install a swearbox in the living room. So I don’t know how the show ends. Sorry about that.

AS students who are reading the Jon Stallworthy anthology, however, will recognise from Herbert Asquith’s ‘The Volunteer’ the show’s nostalgic longing for a more honourable age of knights and chargers. Just as the general staff longed for a war of movement, this show longed for the First World War to be a completely different war to the one that was actually fought: one of heroes on horses making the decisive intervention. The program repeatedly showed romantic reconstructions of cavalry silhouetted against the setting sun: “horsemen, charging under phantom skies”, indeed.

Of course, the First World War wasn’t like that. The First World War was the end of the cavalry in modern warfare, for obvious reasons: a horse can’t be armoured against enfilading machine gun fire, and works, at best, at roughly one horse power. Horses were, on the other hand, essential for transport and, at the end of the war, meat for starving peasants.

The argument that the documentary makes, that “the finest hour of the cavalry came in spring 1918 when – led by the warhorse Warrior – they checked the German advance before going on to help win the war” is, frankly, idiotic. On the contrary, the cavalry was an outmoded institution that no-one in the conservative British Army really knew what to do with, at least on the Western Front. The years of static slaughter during which, at each big push, hundreds or thousands of horse riders would hang about behind the lines waiting for signs of breakthrough, stands as an everlasting testament to the mental inflexibility of the general staff.

Similarly, our current fascination with the War Horse seems to be, in part, an attempt to substitute a romantic symbol for ugly reality. We better get used to this desperate revisionism in the years ahead.

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