The incredible story of Warrior, the real-life War Horse, has long been a legend in our family.
Bred by my grandfather General Jack Seely in 1908, a couple of miles from his home at Yafford on the Isle of Wight, no horse and rider can ever have been through such a sustained series of adventures. They walked off the boat together at Le Havre in 1914 to join the Western Front, and cheated death a thousand times, surviving all four years of the war from Ypres to the Somme, Passchendaele and Cambrai before returning home where they continued to ride on together.
I’ve always thought it rather sweet and poetic that this sturdy bay thoroughbred gelding was christened Warrior because from the peace and tranquillity of the Isle of Wight where he grew up, he remarkably went on to become one of the greatest warriors of all time.
It was evident from an early age that he had special qualities. My grandfather would take him down to the local beach and let the waves break on him. Most horses would normally shy away, but Warrior stood stock still while the water crashed on him. Instantly he knew this horse had an abundance of courage. And so it proved in the summer of 1914 when Grandpa had no choice but to take him to war.
Weeks later in the first major action of the war, at the Battle of Mons, a cluster of shells fell within yards of them. Any normal thoroughbred would have bolted in terror. But not Warrior. As my grandfather later wrote, “To my amazement, Warrior made no attempt to run away. He simply turned his head and unconcerned, looked at the smoke of the burst.” It’s evident that he never once shirked danger despite Grandpa, at the front, galloping around wearing a red General’s cap, making for a huge and obvious target.
Warrior was brave but not stupid. Fast but not fragile. But above all, he was a survivor. On one occasion the horse beside him was cut in half by a shell. On another, the horse whose nose he was touching was shot through the neck.
Tragically, over eight million horses and mules perished in the war, but time and again the fates conspired to spare Warrior. Three times his stable took a direct hit from a shell and he escaped. He sank in the mud at Passchendaele and was dug out while bullets splattered all around them. At Moreuil Wood, Grandpa and Warrior led a desperate charge across open ground straight into a hail of bullets. Warrior never flinched as he charged into that barrage. Hundreds of horses behind them died, but incredibly Warrior escaped without a scratch.
As General of the Canadian Cavalry, my grandfather was no shrinking violet. An undeniably brave man, he was a popular general. But it’s fair to say, not as popular as his horse. Warrior was simply a four-legged inspiration. There was a sense among the men that “if Warrior was OK, we’d be OK.” And my grandfather shared the troops pride in Warrior, because he felt he could never have earned their love and affection were it not for his horse.
This was no ordinary rider-and-horse relationship. They were incredibly close. If the General walked, Warrior would follow behind like a dog. You have to remember this was a horse he had bred and had ridden every day of his life, including some of the most pivotal moments of his existence so they had a bond like no other.
After the war, Warrior returned a hero and was petted by such distinguished guests as Winston Churchill and Queen Mary. But perhaps the sweetest moment came in March 1922 when he won a point-to-point race on the Isle of Wight, four years to the day since he led that famous cavalry charge at Moreuil Wood.
My grandfather and Warrior were inseparable and in 1938 trotted through their home village, their combined ages of 30 and 70 respectively, totalling a century. A virtually unheard-of feat. But to do it on a horse that had carried you through four years on the front line of the bloodiest war in history is almost beyond the imaginings of even Steven Spielberg. And while I greatly enjoyed Steven’s wonderfully evocative version of the fictional tale, War Horse, I have to say there’s no comparison to this truly extraordinary and inspiring real life story.
When Warrior finally passed away at his home stables in 1941 at the incredibly old age of 33, he was fittingly granted an unprecedented obituary in The Times, under the title The Horse the Germans Couldn’t Kill. My grandfather lived on until 1947 but Warrior’s passing affected him greatly. Years later I found a touching entry in his diary on the day that Warrior passed which simply read, “To quote Byron, I do not believe that he can be denied in heaven the soul that he held on earth.”
So I’m proud that my telling of the story has helped that soul to live on. Because, without doubt, Warrior was simply the greatest horse that ever lived.
War Horse: The Real Story is on Sunday 4 March, 8pm on Channel 4