War Horse History: The Christmas Truce of 1914 and How War Horse Gets Things Right

World War I German Weihnachtspost (Christmas Post) Post Card

This lovely old German Christmas card commemorates the Christmas Truce of 1914, when German and British forces laid down their arms.

One aspect of War Horse that is very important for people to “get” is that horses don’t really discriminate between armies. Joey can’t tell from the shape of a helmet or the color of a coat if someone is German or French or British or Belgian.

So, don’t expect to be able to tell the good guys from the bad guys in War Horse. There are good guys and bad guys on both sides. And the biggest, baddest guy is the war itself.

And on that note, for one night, someone looking down on the trenches on December 24, 1914 might not have been able to tell which was which, either. A movie called Joyeux Noel was written about the Christmas Truce. Here’s a little segment of it–this is NOT War Horse! But it is a great story about World War I and Christmas!

And…it is based on actual events that took place at the front on Christmas Eve, 1914, the first year of World War I.

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A very good book about the Christmas Truce of 1914 is called Silent Night.

The very special German Christmas card is from the Captain Pandapants collection.

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Be brave! Entrench yourself in WAR HORSE NEWS on the web: 1) Bookmark WarHorseBlog.com; 2) Grab the RSS feed; 3) Follow @WarHorseNews on Twitter; 4) “Like” the War Horse News page on Facebook; 5) Circle War Horse News on Google +. Leave your questions and comments here on the blog and we’ll try to help you! WAR HORSE NEWS is written for moviegoers, horse lovers and history buffs by horse-specialist journalist Fran Jurga and hosted by Equisearch.com.

Remembering War Horses (and Mules): “She Is Very Stupid But I Am Very Fond of Her”

She is very stupid but I am very fond of her

While researching the history of horses in World War I for War Horse News, I looked through thousands of photographs of the war that showed horses. Some stuck with me. A few stuck with such emotional glue that I think I will remember them all my life.

This is one of them.

I found this photo in the archive of the National Library of Scotland.

The soldier, dressed in what can only be described as a sheepskin anorak, sent this photo home to someone. He and his mule are standing alone in the mud, somewhere at The Front.

He wrote simply, “She is very stupid but I am very fond of her.”

Today we speak of something called “the horse-human bond”. If you’re interested in it, get a magnifying glass and go through some of the photos from World War I. Read the notes that men wrote about their horses and mules on their photos that they sent home.

Horses and humans were never closer than when they went to war together. It’s a huge story of the human heart and the horse’s generous spirit that only the likes of an author like Michael Morpurgo or a filmmaker like Steven Spielberg could–or would–tackle.

I believe this story is why so many people weep during War Horse. It’s not for anything that is physically in the film, said by the characters or shown in the action. It is the bigger background canvas of what humans and animals mean to each other, especially when all else is lost.

Years after seeing War Horse, you will get a catch in your throat when you think of it. You might not remember that Jeremy Irvine played Albert, or whether Captain Nicholls lived or died. What you’ll remember is what a horse brought out in people when they were in desperate situations together.

It’s a story that has never been told fully or sufficiently and even the most involved people in the making of War Horse will admit that the story is only partly told in the film. Maybe it never will be told. The story is too big and too heart-breaking for any one cinema screen. There’s no theater than can hold it, no paper than can absorb all its ink.

It’s best told in one liners like “She is very stupid but I am very fond of her”. That was all this soldier had to say, and all we need to know.

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Be brave! Entrench yourself in WAR HORSE NEWS on the web: 1) Bookmark WarHorseBlog.com; 2) Grab the RSS feed; 3) Follow @WarHorseNews on Twitter; 4) “Like” the War Horse News page on Facebook; 5) Circle War Horse News on Google +. Leave your questions and comments here on the blog and we’ll try to help you! WAR HORSE NEWS is written for moviegoers, horse lovers and history buffs by horse-specialist journalist Fran Jurga and hosted by Equisearch.com.

Lest We Forget: Australia Sent Over 100,000 Horses to the War–Only One Returned

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This short video is an introductory tribute to the contribution of Australian horses to the conflict known as “World War I”.

While you may have an image of that war being fought in the trenches of France and Belgium, think again. The war was fought on many fronts across Europe and the Middle East. The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) went to war as part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force that fought mainly in the region known then as Palestine, as well as Egypt and, most famously, Turkey, where the Battle of Gallipoli served up the British-aligned forces one of its worst and bloodiest defeats.

The horses shipped from Australia to the Middle East were known simply as “Walers” because they were shipped from New South Wales, where most Australian horse breeding was centered. They were horses bred to work the sheep stations, with no thought to an official breed registry. After the Waler horses went to the Boer War in Africa in the late 1800s, it became obvious to the British Empire that the horse that was suited for work on the vast Australian sheep stations was also good at war.

What little was left of the Waler breed after World War I evolved into today’s Australian Stock Horse. According to the breed association, the recent preservation of Waler bloodlines centered on stock ¬†found running wild in the outback on properties that had been military remount stations.

A magnificent effort in Australia has preserved the bloodlines and re-established the breed. (Photo accompanies a story on the breed's web site.)

The Australian horses were the toughest on any front of World War I, and War Horse News is looking forward to giving these horses some of the due respect owed them. Luckily, their accomplishments in the war have been well-documented, even if their human counterparts were forced to abandon them when the war ended. That’s right, one Waler–an officer’s mare named Sandy–made it home to Australia.

Along the M7 motorway in Sydney is the symbolic Australian Light Horse Sculpture Parade. It is dedicated to the heroic troops who served in the Australian Light Horse mounted unit and to their horses, who could never return to their native country.

There are no horses in the sculpture and no mention of them. Their absence is symbolic of the fact that the horses could never return.

The human and equine sacrifices of ANZAC during World War I aren’t well known in the United States, but as this blog unfolds you will become aware of how much they did and how gallantly they did it, without seeking glory. Today, Australia and New Zealand still excel at horse sport and racing.

And it’s no wonder, with blood and heritage like the ANZAC and their Walers running in the horses’ and riders’ veins.

Learn more about Waler horses on the Waler Horse Society of Australia web site.

Rent or stream the video of the excellent film Gallipoli (starring a young Mel Gibson) to learn more about ANZAC and the Corps’ tragic experience in that battle.

Be brave! Entrench yourself in War Horse News on the web: 1) Bookmark WarHorseBlog.com; 2) Grab the RSS feed; 3) Follow @WarHorseNews on Twitter; 4) “Like” the War Horse News page on Facebook; 5) Circle War Horse News on Google +. Leave your questions and comments here on the blog and we’ll try to help you!

Once Upon a War Horse: About This Blog

billboard war horse film

With its simple and beautiful message, War Horse--whether in the form of a book, a play or a movie--has taken aim on all our hearts.

Fran Jurga War Horse News blogger

Fran Jurga, War Horse News

Welcome to the War Horse News blog.

I remember the Sunday morning in 2007 when I was surprised to find myself reading theater news from London: a play called War Horse was opening. It sounded fantastic. I was hungry to know more and more and before I had finished my bagel that morning I was probably War Horse‘s biggest fan…without ever setting foot in a theater.

From far away in Boston, I couldn’t understand quite how the puppets in London worked or how you could possibly stage a play about horses in World War I at all. But I absorbed the story. I channeled the book’s author. From my own knowledge of the history of horses in World War I, I knew already how rich the story could–and must–be.

Playbill War Horse theater

In 2007: War Horse the play.

What’s a horse-specialist writer to do? Of course I jumped right in at the deep end, hooves first. I took War Horse on as my pet project. Even though I had never been to a play in London. Even though I had never been to the Devon countryside. And even though I’ve certainly never been anywhere near a war. Yet I instinctively understood War Horse from that very first morning I read the hints to the plot in the Telegraph.

Now it’s four years later and War Horse is a hit stage play in London and New York. The book is enjoying a second coming. And the film is about to roll into cinemas and capture hearts from Amarillo to Zephyr Cove.

It’s such a sensation, it now has its own dedicated blog. And look who’s writing it: The woman who read about the play in her bathrobe. The one who didn’t care that morning that there were bagel crumbs stuck in the keyboard.

Expect to find even more here than the usual fan notes and links and news video clips. Expect to come to understand what the buzz of War Horse–in all its forms–has to do with real horses.

War Horse book jacket old edition

In 1982: the book (Image from Jane Badger Books UK)

For the next few months, this blog and I will keep you on the leading edge of information about the cultural phenomenon known simply as “War Horse”. Whether it is news about the book by Michael Morpurgo, the stage play in London and New York or the dazzling film set to open in the next month in North America and Great Britain, look for information here.

But expect to find even more here than the usual fan notes and links and news video clips. Expect to come to understand what the buzz of War Horse–in all its forms–has to do with real horses. Because most of all, I’ll bring you face to face with “war horse” without any capital letters. You’ll meet the nameless (to us) and all-but-forgotten war horses of World War I as history has recorded them, and as I have managed to discover them from the military history books and old library photo archives. I’ll also introduce you to the individual humans and the charities that worked to assist the war horses, since so many of those generous people have been forgotten now as well.

world war I poster

Horses and humans were never closer than during wars.

Everyone knows by now that War Horse is the story of a boy and a horse and a war. But it is a significant tribute to not just the film-making genius of Steven Spielberg, the clever puppetry of Handspring and the poignant pen of Michael Morpurgo. It’s a tribute to those real war horses (and mules) who paid the ultimate price. We’ll find out how they got there, what happened to them, and perhaps even why it has taken so long for us to salute them, and to understand what their sacrifice meant.

I’ll be your guide. I’m Fran Jurga, a writer who specializes in horses but who has another hoof in history and another in contemporary culture. And the fourth hoof? That one’s planted firmly right at the heart of the matter: how all this history and Hollywood hoopla about War Horse can make us understand more about the horses who inhabit our lives today, who make this world such a beautiful and exciting place to live, and who never fail to teach us so much about ourselves.

Take a deep breath: If even a small dose of enthusiasm in War Horse News rubs off on you, you’re in for a great adventure.

That is really what War Horse–in all its forms–is about. So open up a little, and let the miraculous War Horse into your heart. As Captain Stewart says in the movie: Be brave.

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War Horse, a Dreamworks/Disney film directed by Steven Spielberg and featuring a talented cast of humor and equine actors, opens in the USA on Christmas Day.

What to do now: 1) Please bookmark this blog. 2) Subscribe to the RSS feed. 3) Figure out how to read it on your mobile and tablet devices. 4) Follow @warhorsenews on Twitter. 5) “Like” the War Horse News page on Facebook. 6) Circle the War Horse News page on Google Plus. (But the full, real stories and media will be here, on the blog.) 8) Tell your friends. 9) Check back soon and often. 10) Take a deep breath: If even a small dose of my enthusiasm rubs off on you, you’re in for a great adventure and I’m thrilled to share it with you.

Read my rather naive and slightly inaccurate first post about War Horse on The Jurga Report in 2007.

Fran Jurga is a self-employed freelance writer and editor who lives near Boston. She has blogged for and about the 2008 Olympics Equestrian Events, the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, and the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. Fran’s other current blogs: The Jurga Report on horse health, welfare and culture for EQUUS Magazine and the highly specialized (and often entertaining) Fran Jurga’s Hoof Blog for Hoofcare + Lameness: The Journal of Equine Foot Science.