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.

War Horse: Albert and Joey.

What with the rush towards the exams– some of you won’t need reminding that you’ve got your AS English literature examination on Monday!– I haven’t been able to post on here as I’d like. Apologies: but I do hope that the website has helped you all with your revision. Oh, and of course, the best of luck to you all!

In between all the marking and moderation, however, here at Southfields we managed to take a break last week– or was it extra work?– and go on a class trip to see ‘War Horse’ at the New London Theatre on Drury Lane.

Now, this isn’t a production that needs any introduction from me. ‘War Horse’, adapted from a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, has been running successfully on the London stage for over four years now. It recently opened on Broadway. You can check out reviews of the play in the Guardian, Telegraph and New York Times– and watch a trailer for the production here.

The play follows a horse, Joey, and his best friend Albert, as they go to war in 1914. First Joey is sold to the army by Albert’s drunkard father; later Albert follows by volunteering for the front in a quest to find his much-loved companion. Both Albert and Joey are pulled into the vicious maelstrom of the war, with Albert determined to reunite the pair.

Such is the basic plot of ‘War Horse’. It’s a pretty utilitarian and shaky thing, but as we all know by now, it is not simply the story that the audience comes to see: it’s the horses. ‘War Horse’ employs puppeteers to bring the horses alive on stage, and nose-twitchingly alive they seem too.

When our group went to see ‘War Horse’, I wondered about these life-size, wood frame puppets: would they be up to the theatrical hype? The answer is resoundingly ‘yes’: they are indeed magical, and their transformation from inert thing to living, breathing animal is child’s-play, in the best sense: a triumph of imagination over reality. The horses are, as they say, worth the price of admission alone.

Which is just as well. If what is best about this play is what is child-like– the production’s brave sense of play, imagination and adventure– what is worst about it is when it comes across as simplistic and childish. After a brilliant first half, depicting Joey and Albert growing up together and becoming inseparable friends, the play begins to unravel in quite an alarming way.

Once the horse actually becomes a war horse, we’re dragged on an interminable and sometimes confusing journey across the lines with Joey, who is inevitably badly treated (animals always seem to stand in for Christ in children’s books. They should have saved time in 33 A.D. and crucified the donkey). By the second half of the play we’re firmly attached to Joey, but we frankly don’t care about his new friends and enemies, who are so mawkishly or villainously characterised that you could hardly complain if any one of them were shot and boiled down for glue.

Meanwhile, there’s Albert, who once out in France persists in his monomaniac obsession with his horse. This is played quite lightly at first, for laughs, and the play is better for it. As the play moves on, however, Albert’s seemingly bottomless fixation on his childhood friend becomes first irritating then laughable; in the midst of a war in which over 16 million people died, there’s only so much anguish over a 900lb French steak that a fully grown adult can support.

Fortunately, the production helps to bring gravitas to the feather-light plot and characterisation. The remarkable tanks, shocking shell strikes, and the grim march of the wounded back to ship convince just as the horses do and the story doesn’t.

Still– and here’s the thing– it was still a wonderful evening. The horses and production were so remarkable, and the first half so charming, that the play could, in my opinion, support the fall-off in the second. And besides this, it was a wonderful night to share with my students, who were a credit to themselves and the school. Opinion amongst them were divided; most absolutely loved the show, but at least one didn’t like the production at all. All thought the trip was worth it though, I think. If you’re a student thinking of going, I would say get along to the theatre if you can– and come to your own verdict. It’s worth your time.

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