Week 16: “The Horse’s Mouth: Staging Morpurgo’s ‘War Horse'”

“The Horse’s Mouth,” by Mervyn Millar, recounts the development of “War Horse” for the stage. It might be too technical for the general reader, but it would be interesting for any fan of the book who’s curious about how it got turned into a play. Among other parts of the process, the director, playwright et al. visited farm horses in Devon, where Joey’s story begins, and the London home of the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery, where training still has much in common with its WWI practices.


King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery parade, London. Photo at Flickr from kenjonbro.

The book also is notable for what the various members of the theatrical team had to say about the war. Most admitted they didn’t know much about it when they began, beyond what they learned at school (which in the U.S. would be nothing).

And here’s Michael Morpurgo on what played into his inspiration to write the book in the first place:

“Most of us grow up with the First World War poets. Well, the fact is this: grand and wonderful as some of these poems are, most of them were written by officers, who came to the war with a certain class, a certain idea, a certain notion. The people I was talking to in (the Devon town of ) Iddesleigh were, if you like, the fighting men. People who came to the war straight, without verses, and thinking, and philosophy and literature to either help or hinder them: they came to it straight. And I had always wondered, with my listening to them, and my reading of history, how it was that these men did go over the top, because people told them to do it.”
And here’s Joey in the trailer for the Mirvish Productions’ “War Horse” in Toronto:

The war animals’ friend, CORRECTED

Ghosts of 1914 points out that I made a couple of mistakes when I wrote about her post “Dr. Dolittle Goes to War”:


The photo of the man in the pith helmet with all his animals is NOT Hugh Lofting, author of the Dr. Dolittle series. Lofting was a combat engineer with the Irish Guards, NOT a veterinarian.

I did wonder how a civil engineer got himself from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to a kennel on the Western Front, but I didn’t wonder enough. War is absurd; anything can happen.

Thanks for correcting me, Fiona.

The Irish Guards had a terrible war, from the first days near Mons to the Armistice, when they were also near Mons. Nearly half the officers and more than a quarter of the men were killed. Lofting served on the Front in 1917-18, when he was badly wounded.

Here are details about the Irish Guards in WWI:


Another literary family contributed a son to the Irish Guards: John Kipling, son of Rudyard Kipling. The younger Kipling was declared missing, presumed killed at Loos in 1915. He was 18. Daniel Radclifffe (Harry Potter) played him in the made-for-TV movie “My Boy Jack.”

Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem after the war that ended with the famous line

“If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied.”


Warships of the desert, updated

The always intriguing blog Ghosts of War reports on the history of the Imperial Camel Corps brigade.



From the State Library of Queensland, Australia

Also, for you war animal fans, Ghosts of 1914 has a funny little bit about cats.


From a Facebook friend:


War pigeons


From the National Library of Scotland.

“French pigeon trainer, France, during World War I. This photograph shows a French Army officer holding a carrier pigeon ready to fly. Below the rank chevrons on his sleeve he is wearing a badge of a flying pigeon, showing he was a pigeon trainer. He has the weather-beaten skin of a countryman.

“On September 11, 1914, the French gave 15 pigeons to the British Intelligence Service. By 1918 there were some 20,000 birds and 380 expert pigeon trainers in the British Army alone.”


UPDATE:  From our Facebook friend the 18é Régiment d’Infanterie du Ligne:  Great photo! However, the chevrons on his arm denote his combat experience and senority. Enlisted rank is located on the sleeve cuff (near the wrist) an looke like “hash” marks.

War cats

When we think of animals that went to the front with the soldiers, we usually think of dogs and Joey the War Horse and so on. But Fiona Robinson, blogging at Ghosts of 1914, went looking for cats. You’ll be surprised at what she found!

Also, “Mad Men” reference, for those willing to dip into the 21st Century for a moment.




As if bullets and shells were not bad enough…

There was a shriek in our office last night: somebody saw a cockroach. I know someone else who was unable to go to work because there was a spider beside her front door. That’s nothing: I’ve seen bedbugs. Bedbugs.

But the troops of World War I would not have blinked an eye at these puny pests. After all, they had lice, which trumps cockroaches, spiders, bedbugs and even fleas.


German soldiers collecting lice.

Besides, they faced something worse.


DeBugged, the pest control blog, explains the particular horror of rats. Don’t miss the link to the video of two old chaps talking about the appalling conditions in the trenches.



The original caption suggests that the soldiers were about to cook their catch. Wasn’t the food bad enough already?

Why do these Germans look so cheerful? Because these rats are dead!

Classic headline in The Onion fake newspaper: “Corpse-Eating Rats Now Largest Military Force in Europe”

Run, little donkey, run

Donkeys played many roles in World War I. They hauled equipment and ammunition. They carried the wounded — Australian Pvt. John Simpson became a hero to the troops at Gallipoli, carrying more than 300 wounded men back on a donkey he caught in a field. He was killed May 19, 1915.

But donkeys also provided companionship and entertainment. Sunday’s Daily Mail has a report on a medal awarded to Jimmy the donkey, who was born on the Somme battlefield and became a beloved mascot to the Cameronian Scottish rifles. Ths Daily Mail says, “Jimmy will be honoured as part of an exhibition at the Cameronian’s Museum in Hamilton, which will reopen on April 4.”

Donkeys pulling a load of shovels.
Jack Simpson Kirkpatrick and his donkey bring a wounded man to an aid station.


ImageDonkey racing behind the lines. Don’t put your money on the fellow on the right!