Michael Morpurgo on the making of War Horse – and why its message must not be forgotten

The author will perform a new story specially written to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele live on the BBC

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Growing up in postwar London, the consequences of war were all around me, unavoidable.

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For all of us on our way to school through foggy streets, there were bomb sites everywhere. It was the war that had done this, they told us. We liked those bomb sites, because we could play in them – war games mostly, and no one wanted to be a German, because you got killed. They were the best adventure playgrounds imaginable, partly because they were forbidden. We neither knew nor cared much about the bombing. We had been away in the countryside, evacuated.

We used to see an old soldier, with his medals up, sitting on the corner of Philbeach Gardens, with his dog. He was very smart in his blazer, but he had a leg missing, his empty trouser leg folded neatly, which I always tried not to look at. I was beginning, I suppose, to learn what war did.

I should have known already. There was the photo on the mantelpiece at home of my uncle Pieter, whom I had never known because he had been killed in the RAF in 1941, two years before I was born. He was 21, a Rada-trained young actor before he put on a uniform. He was in his uniform in the photo. He was a hero to me, far more than any footballer in my cigarette-card collection. My mother grieved for her lost brother, on his birthday – on 11 November each year, we kept a poppy by his photo. I was learning what war did.

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Michael Morpurgo’s uncle Pieter

A friend of the family, Eric Pearce, used to visit sometimes. He had been in the Fleet Air Arm. His plane had crashed and he had suffered terrible burns. I was always told never to stare at him when he came to tea. But I did. A wonderful doctor called Dr McIndoe had patched him up in hospital. His scars fascinated me, horrified me. I was full of awe. I could not look away. Here was another hero. I was learning what war did.

It was the collateral damage of war that broke my family up, separated me and my brother from our father. Mother and Father were both actors. He went away to war. Absence does not make the heart grow fonder. After the war they divorced, like so many others, their lives shattered. I learnt again what war does. 

Fast forward through the years, to a meeting with an old soldier in our local pub in Devon, not from the war that had so overshadowed my early life, but from the war before that, the First World War, which I now knew was at least in part responsible for the rise of Fascism in Germany and the Second World War. That’s what war does, historically: it begins other wars. 

Through Wilf Ellis, the old soldier I met and talked to in the pub that day back in 1980, through Captain Budgett and Albert Weeks, all octogenarians living in my village of Iddesleigh in deepest Devon, I learnt more about that war than from all I had seen and read: the history books, the plays, the films, the great poetry. From talking to them I came closer to war than I ever had before: the fighting, the fear, the courage, the camaraderie, the suffering, the dying and the grieving. Now I knew what Wilfred Owen meant by the pity of war, the futility of it. 

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Stretcher bearers, Boesinghe, 1917

Captain Budgett had been there “with horses”. From him I learnt of the deep bond of affection and trust and respect between horse and soldier. His words, their words, moved me deeply. I remembered then a picture by one FW Reed that we had long ago put up in our attic, because it was too hard to look at, of British Cavalry in the First World War charging up a snowy hill into barbed wire, some caught in it already.

From subsequent investigations at the Imperial War Museum I found out the appalling truth that a million horses from these shores went to that war, from farms all over the country, from across the Atlantic. Only 65,000 came home. Many of those that survived the fighting, the shelling, the machine guns, the gas, the disease and exhaustion, and the mud that drowned men and horses alike, were sold off in France, thousands ending up hanging in butchers’ shops in France and Belgium. 

So, about the same number of horses perished as soldiers. They fought and died the same way. It’s reckoned, and no one really knows, that about 10 million soldiers on all sides died in the First World War. It’s likely, then, that the same number of horses were lost.

It occurred to me then that I might try to tell the story of that war, of the horror of it, of the universal suffering, through the eyes of a horse, a farm horse sold away from my village in Devon as many were, a beloved horse of a farm boy who joins up, as many did, but this one joins up to find his horse, his Joey. Joey would be a neutral observer of all this, of man’s incomprehensible inhumanity to man. He is trained by the British as a cavalry horse, then captured by the German Army, used to pull guns and ambulances and ammunition wagons. He lives for a time of blessed peace on a French farm not far from the front.

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War Horse

The book came out in 1982 to average reviews and sales, but was kept in print, just. Ten years ago the National Theatre decided to create a play of War Horse using remarkable puppets created by the Handspring Puppet Company from South Africa. Not the most promising of ideas, I thought. But it was Tom Morris at the National Theatre, and I thought he might know what he was doing. It took two years of faith and work to bring the production to the stage. I remained doubtful, but hopeful. 

Ten years on, after seven million people have seen it worldwide, from Belgium and China to America and Canada, and from Australia to Japan and Germany, the play returns to tour the UK again this autumn. I saw it once, memorably, this great anthem to peace and reconciliation, in Berlin, in the very theatre where the Kaiser had once sat, and Hitler too.

And I thought as I watched the play and heard German actors singing English folk songs in German that my uncle Pieter, my actor uncle, who had died so young in the war that followed this “war to end all wars”, would have loved this, as would the three old men from my village who had told me their stories, as would the old soldier with one leg sitting on the street corner, as would Eric Pearce, so scarred by war. I thought too of all the young men and horses who had not come home as they had, but had suffered and died in foreign fields, far from all they loved and held dear.

And they would, I hope and believe, love the idea that a farm horse from Devon, a war horse – now a peace horse – like Joey, could be taking part in a ceremony in Ypres, a town where thousands upon thousands of soldiers tramped though, their horses with them, a town from which so many did not return home. And of those horses and men, hundreds of thousands died during the summer of 1917 at the Battle of Passchendaele, not far away, a battle remembered now, a hundred years on, for the intensity and horror of suffering and dying, for the dogged courage of the men who endured.

It was a battle in which half a million young Uncle Pieters died on all sides, men who live on, most forgotten now, in faded family photographs, on war memorials, on gravestones. But they must not be forgotten. As the song in War Horse goes, they are “only remembered for what they have done”.

Like my Uncle Pieter, they died for our peace. To be worthy of them, we have to sustain the peace, build friendship and understanding, and we have to “sing the anthem, tell the story”. I hope Joey helps to do that.  

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World War One Remembered: Passchendaele is on Sunday 31 July at 7pm on BBC2