War Horse is the 1982 classic children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, about a horse and it’s owner as they struggle to reunite during the First World War.
NB: This review does contain spoilers! I’ve put the majority of the plot in a dropdown though my thoughts at the end do reference some scenes at the end of the novel.
The book is written from the perspective of the horse and the story starts shortly before World War One, Albert is a 14 year old boy who lives on a farm in Devon. However the farm has been struggling for years as his father drinks regularly, as a coping mechanism for his PTSD following the Boer War. One day in a drunken stupor his father buys Joey, a horse clearly unsuited to working on a farm. However Albert successfully trains him to become a plough horse and they plough the field for the harvest.
Unfortunately however the First World War breaks and in short-sightedness Albert’s father sells Joey to become a cavalry horse to an army officer.
However, a few weeks into the war the officer is killed during a cavalry charge so Joey changes hands to the Germans, who use him and another horse, Topthorn as medical horses to cart off the injured from the battlefield to the hospital. They give him to a French grandfather and his granddaughter Emilie who look after them whilst they are performing this duty.
Eventually the Germans give the horse to Emilie but another unit returns a few months later and renegade on the promise, taking both horses to use to drag heavy artillery to the battlefield. The strain and harshness of winter however gets to Topthorn and he dies from the work shortly before a British onslaught.
In a panic Joey flees but gets caught in the barb wire on No Man’s Land overnight. The Germans and the British notice him and a solider from both sides goes out with a white flag to inspect him. Due to the barbed wire Joey is injured and the injury has picked up an infection – however the two soldiers flip a coin to decide who gets the horse with the British soldier winning so he takes Joey back to the British lines to be treated.
By this time a few years has passed and Albert is now working in the army as a vet so is sent to treat Joey. Initially he doesn’t recognise him due to the mud but when he cleans him he does so him and his superior do all they can to nurse Joey back to health. A few months later the war ends but the orders from above have decided all animals need to be sold on to French farmers so Joey is to be auctioned. The soldiers arrange a whip round to buy Joey but they are bought out by Emilie’s grandfather who wants the horse to remember his granddaughter by, who has since passed away from a broken heart since the horses were taken from her.
Albert has a chat with the grandfather however and when he realises Joey was in fact Albert’s horse before the war he gives Joey his horse back, making him promise to look after the horse and to tell people Emilie’s story so she isn’t forgotten.
In an epilogue, Albert and Joey return to Devon and Albert gets married – though Joey and Albert’s new wife don’t quite see eye to eye.
I first heard about War Horse when I watched the 2011 movie adaptation which was directed by Steven Spielberg and starred Jeremy Irvine as Albert. I did enjoy the movie and it has been on my reading list for a while to read the book adaptation so I put it on my Christmas list for this year.
The trailer for the movie is below:
The movie is a very accurate representation with all the books events occurring in the movie, the only addition was the two fleeing German soldiers who decide to desert the war and also in the movie version Emilie keeps the horses without the Germans knowledge but other than this the movie is a very accurate adaptation.
I did find it unusual that the book is written from the perspective of an animal, with Joey being the main protagonist rather than Albert. However I think this does give the book a lot of emotional impact as Joey doesn’t really know the full implications of what is going on and is an innocent animal caught in the crossfire of the war, like so many of the young men who fought and died there.
I also found the book had many emotional moments, with a tear in my eye when Albert is separated from his horse as well as when Topthorn dies and the auction scene at the end carry an emotional punch.
The book also does have some funny moments like the exchange between the two soldiers who are trying to free Joey which is quite funny as they talk about keeping their head down when the shells start back up again.
Whilst I would say the books happy ending for adults may be slightly Disney-fied and a bit inexplicable that a horse and its owner could be reunited in this way out of the millions of people in the war. However as it is a children’s book I can understand why Morpurgo ended it in this way and the book does have some heavier emotional moments to show the reality of war to young readers.
It is also a very short read but is a great introduction for youngsters to find out more about World War One which I would definitely recommend.