Michael Morpurgo on horses' military service

An undated photo of German engineers building a bridge over pits torn open by mines at St. Quentin, France, during World War I.
AP Photo

"War Horse," a production of the National Theatre of Great Britain, tells the story of a farm boy whose horse is sold to the British Army to serve on the front lines in World War I. Based on the young adult novel by Michael Morpugo, it is having its New York premiere this week. The author spoke with Martha Teichner about the genesis of his story ...

MICHAEL MORPURGO: Funnily enough, my fascination for World War I came from World War II. I'm a war baby, I was born in 1943. So I grew up in a world in London which was bombed, and my first playground was a bomb site. I suppose the first time I saw my mother upset, properly upset, was age five, when she was remembering her brother, who had been killed in Second World War in the RAF. He was a photograph on the mantelpiece back home, my Uncle Peter.

And from then on, I looked at that photograph, and I remembered my mother's grief, which went on all her life. She went on really grieving quite regularly about this, right the way through to her death some ten years ago. And it made me always, I think, remember that war isn't a thing that just happens and passes, that the grief goes on, and the suffering goes on afterwards. It's not about the millions that die, it's about the millions that survive, and survive in grief. So that was the first thing.

It's sort of, I think, there inside me that war does this thing not just to buildings but to people. And then I got to the stage where my wife, Claire, and I decided to move down to Devon to start a project to get kids to come to the countryside from the big cities. We called it Farms and City Children.

We set up near a village and got to know a village community for the very, very first time in a place called Iddesleigh, middle of nowhere, middle of Devon. So there we are, trying to fit into totally rural community, not being rural people necessarily ourselves, but having a great appreciation of it. We are the biggest employer locally. So we were very involved in the community. And I got to know people for the first time living next to me that knew where their parents were buried in the church yard, and their histories, and who planted that tree, and who dug that ditch - some sort of sense of how this place had been for hundreds of years.

I was talking one day to an old man in the pub. And I knew he'd been to First World War - there were three old men who'd been to First World War. And this old bloke was sitting there, and he had a pint of beer in his hand: "Yeah, yeah, I was there, I was there."

He was 17 when he went over with the Devon Yeomanry. I said, "What sort of regiment was that?" He said, "I was there with horses." And he started talking. I didn't have to ask him - he just went on talking, talking, talking. And eventually, he took me back to his house and showed me some of the things that he'd brought back and some photographs. And the more he talked, the more upset he became, and the more engaged I became in what had happened to him - this young man who'd come away from a completely pastoral background and had been thrust into this hideous, hideous trench warfare.

The only thing that kept him sane was that he said he would talk to his horse. And I didn't even think at the time [that] this is just sentimentality, because he is a farm worker - he was a hard nut. But he said, "That was all that kept me surviving. 'Cause I would go to horse lines each night to feed the horses, and I would talk to my horse, and I'd talk about my mother, and I'd talk about my sweetheart and about home. And about being frightened. Terrified. Particularly the last one. Being terrified you could not talk about amongst your chums, amongst your pals, 'cause everyone was terrified. You couldn't talk about it. People were dying all around you and you saw things that you simply couldn't talk about."

And the more he talked, the more I realized this was something very important which people didn't know much about, young people or old people. And I had my head focused on the horse, the fact that the horses went there. And I remember picking up the phone quite soon afterwards, maybe a week or so later, and ringing the Imperial War Museum in London and saying, "Do you know how many horses went to the First World War from this country, from Britain?" And they said, "Yes, we think we do. We think about a million went." And I said, "And how many came back?" And they said, "65,000."

That is roughly, not exactly, but roughly how many men died from Britain as well in that war. Almost a million died, and almost a million horses.

The stage magic of "War Horse"

And I also learned something dreadful, which was that even the 65,000 that survived, of those 65,000, huge numbers never even got back to England because the government thought, in their wisdom, "They're not worth bringing back 'cause the price of horses was so low, so we'll sell-- send them to French butchers." They were slaughtered. Having done all this four years, sometimes, surviving and surviving against terrible odds, and serving and serving, you know, the will of the soldiers, so to speak, they then found themselves being sold off for meat.

So I thought this is such a tragic story, but it represents the tragedy of the people who went to that war and didn't come back.

They died from shell blast. They died from wire. They died from machine guns. They died from drowning in the mud. Gas. All those same horrible ghastly things that happened in that war.

So you think to yourself, "This is not just a metaphor, but I could be a metaphor for all wars." So would it be interesting, I thought then, to write a story about not war from one side or the other - from British, from French, from German, Belgian, American,. Write a story, if you could, that is universal, that takes a horse's eye view of this war, a horse that starts on one side, is captured by another side, lives with some people over whose land this whole thing is being fought. Maybe you can get some sort of insight into how ghastly this war thing is that we seem powerless to stop doing, even now. How ghastly it is for the people who take part in it. And then of course for the people back home. So that was really the genesis for the story.

MARTHA TEICHNER: Most of the people who were in World War I have died off. What did you want your young adult readers to know about World War I that maybe they had no concept of?

MICHAEL MORPURGO: I'm not sure I'm that specific about it. I wanted to know myself. When I write a story, I'm in a way teaching myself. I'm trying to talk to myself and enthuse myself and engage myself. And the research I do [is] for me. It then becomes so important I want to pass the story on.

I mean, all storytellers do - whether you're writing for little children or grown up children - all you're doing is passing stories on. That's what we do. And you cannot pass a story on unless you believe in that story and it really matters to you, that you really care about it.

Well, this was not a difficult story to care about. I cared very, very much immediately for the horses concerned and of course for the men concerned. So I think that's what it was. But I would have to add that I think deep inside me, growing up, I'd known about the First World War in Britain. And if you study English literature, you almost always study the poets of the First World War. These are very important figures. My first insight, I suppose, into the First World War, came from the pen of other people, from these great, great poets. And then it would come from films, like "All Quiet on the Western Front." And there was music.

So by the time an educated Englishman gets to the point of being 20 or 25, the First World War is almost inside your bones. Which I don't think is necessarily the case in the U.S. I'm not sure which war it is, it's probably the Second World War or the Civil War, I expect. Because what's interesting, I suppose, is that that war, the Civil War, if I know my history well, was also a time when the ghastly machinery of war, the cleverness of shell fire (if you can call it "cleverness") and of rifle fire, decimated large, large numbers of soldiers for the first time. And we didn't learn from that when it came to the First World War. So we're still dressing up in fancy uniforms and riding horses into machine gun.

In England, we lost a lot, of course we did. But you'd have to go to France, or you'd have to go to Germany, and then look on the village war memorials and find out just the numbers of people in remote little villages that were simply wiped out. And very often, the villages ceased to exist afterwards. That happened a great deal.

MARTHA TEICHNER: Gone, a whole generation.

MICHAEL MORPURGO: The whole generation. But what it did was to knock the stuffing out of Europe in the most extraordinary way. Massive, massive depression.

How do you rise yourself up from this horror that you've been living through and try to get on? Europe has managed it, in sense. There's a good story to tell. And the good story is that, at some point, people got together and thought, 'We've done this. We've had this. We don't do war anymore. We play football, play rugby, and have arguments about butter and sausages.' And it sort of works better. But it's taken two world wars starting in Europe to make that happen.

MARTHA TEICHNER: When you found out how many horses died in World War I, how did you feel, as this staggering number began to percolate through your thoughts?

MICHAEL MORPURGO: All I thought was that it's important to tell the story of one of them. Because in a sense, numbers are impossible to deal with. When I think of six million Jews dying in the holocaust, I can't think of six million people. I can think of Anne Frank. I can think of Primo Levi. I can deal with that - and then I can multiply, if I've got to.

But actually, it's the suffering of individuals that's important that we pass on. Massive numbers of innocent people went to early deaths - old men sending young men to war, in the case of the First World War.