When Steven Spielberg created Michael Morpurgo’s story of Joey, the War Horse on the screen, few people knew that Joey was a work of fiction. Let’s meet a real war horse who spent four years defying death and destruction on the battlefields of WWI, and beat the odds coming back a hero to the man who loved him, the men he fought with and the country he served.
Warrior: A Real War Horse
Warrior was a solid bay standing 15.2hh, born in 1908 in Yafford in the Isle of Wight located in the English Channel off the coast of Hampshire. His home was on Seely property where the rolling land and beaches beckon horse and rider for a good gallop, and Warrior and Seely took to each other from the start. Their bond of friendship was the stuff of legends and it lasted decades through the horrors of war, and into the blessed peace that followed.
However, despite his good life, Warrior, like so many family hunters, school horses, heavy horses and even ponies could not escape the call to war. Six years later Warrior and Seely walked off a boat at Le Havre in France to do their duty to God and King in the depths of hell known as WWI. It would be four long years before Warrior saw the familiar green fields and picturesque coastline of his homeland.
During his four years in battle, Warrior saw action in some of that war’s bloodiest and most famous battles: Ypres, the Somme, Passchendaele and Cambrai. He was one of the lucky ones to survive and out of the 1 million horses that went from the meadows and pastures of Britain to the mud and mayhem of war, more than 900,000 did not return. While some died in battle, others starved or died from their wounds or exhaustion. And, these brave horses who had no choice did not just ride into battle; they were used to pull ammunition, transport guns, food and supplies.
Warrior’s survival could be put down to timing, circumstances, intelligence and just pure luck: twice he was buried by the explosions of shells into soft earth, and often he was just inches away from enemy fire that missed him but hit the horse beside him. But, as I have written before about men and the bonds that were created with their equine partners in war, Warrior became a legend and a source of inspiration.
While Warrior is the star of this story, his owner ‘Galloping Jack’ Seely, born May 31st, 1868 is most certainly his co-star. Seely grew up with wealth and privilege and was educated at Harrow and Cambridge, studying at Trinity College. He was brought up to believe that honor and duty for one’s country were paramount. He joined the Hampshire Yeomanry and fought in the Second Boer War leading by example and from the front. For his efforts he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
Upon his return to England, he became MP for the Isle of Wight and this was the start of his political career that was interrupted by WWI. In 1912 he was appointed Secretary of State for War, temporarily suspended due to an incident at Curragh, Ireland. He was a firm friend of Winston Churchill and they both shared a love of animals, especially horses. He rejoined the army and was appointed commander of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, made up of three regiments. In doing this he became the only Cabinet Minister to go to the front in 1914 and still be there four years later.
At this point he was in his late 40s and while he did recognize that ‘modern’ warfare with the guns, tanks, trenches and barbed wire would be a major problem to any cavalry unit he still believed that there was value in the horses as a support system.
In March of 1918, when Seely was 51, he and Warrior led a crucial cavalry charge at Moreuil Wood, ten miles southwest of Amiens. This charge was to stop the German Spring Offensive and the first charge of 12 men saw five killed. Seely planted a pennant for the other Canadians to aim for and then the major charge took place. The Germans thought they were facing a massive attack by Allied tanks and set up machine gun posts around the perimeter of the woods. What chance did the soldiers and horses have? Seely and some of the survivors managed to get to the woods, went onto hand to hand combat and defeated the Germans in what was the last major cavalry charge of the war. This was a crucial battle and a very important victory: The German advance at this point in France was halted.
A short time after, Seely was sent home after being poisoned by gas, and once again entered politics, was made chairman of the National Savings Committee and coordinated its activities during WWII. On 21 June 1933 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Mottistone, of Mottistone in the County of Southampton. He was Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire from 1918 to 1947, and died November 7th 1947.
Seely always gave his horse high praise and once said that the first time they rode into battle, Warrior, unlike many horses, did not turn and try to run away: “he was pretending to be brave and succeeded in his task.”
Warrior was also a favourite of the soldiers and they would call out, “Here comes Warrior.” before saying, “Here comes the General.”
General Seely wrote about his friend and war partner in his 1934 book, My Horse Warrior. “His escapes were quite wonderful. Again and again he survived when death seemed certain and indeed, befell all his neighbours. It was not all hazard; sometimes it was due to his intelligence. I have seen him, even when a shell has burst within a few feet, stand still without a tremor – just turn his head and, and, unconcerned, look at the smoke of the burst.” – General Jack Seely.
Famous horse artist Sir Alfred Munnings also played a part in the life of Warrior and Seely. Munnings was declared unfit to fight in the war so he was given the task of processing the tens of thousands of Canadian horses en route to France, and was also asked to act as war artist to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. It was here that he put paint and pencil to paper and recorded the horrors of war. It was also at this time that Munnings created his lovely colour rendition of Seely on Warrior drawn just a few miles from the front lines which now hangs in the National Collection of Canada, and graces the cover of the re-issued book about Warrior.
When Warrior returned to the Isle of Wight, he and Seely enjoyed riding together with the highlight of the horse’s retirement being victory in a lightweight point to point in the Isle of Wight. They grew old together and the firm bond of friendship never wavered or weakened. It was also at this time that Munnings spent time with Seely and Warrior in the mid 1930s and continued to draw the horse he had come to so greatly admire.
In October 2011, well known British amateur and professional jockey and sports broadcaster, Brough Scott re issued his grandfather’s book giving it the title: Warrior: The Amazing Story of a Real War Horse, and it includes the beautiful Munning’s paintings and sketches that were in the original version. Brough also wrote Galloper Jack, the story of his grandfather Jack Seely.
“How Warrior braved every sort of drama is a truly astonishing story,” said Brough. “Grandpa is supposed to have recommended him for the VC with the simple, if not modest, citation: ‘He went everywhere I went’.”
Note: the original book, My Horse Warrior is now out of print but old copies can be found in book stores and online.