Let's Be Honest

Jan 22, 2018

This WWI image of a lance corporal and his horse wearing gas masks evokes a sense of absurdity of Cavalry "charging headlong into machine guns and mustard gas. Radio Reader Daniel Helbert suggests it is perhaps, more than anything else, truly iconic of the senselessness and stupidity of the First World War.
Credit Pintrest

Hello, I’m Daniel Helbert from Canyon, Texas for HPPR’s Radio Reader’s Book Club. Joey, the horse who is the main character and the narrator for Michael Morpurgo’s novel War Horse is a spectacular and noble steed who has a noticeable emotional effect on humans that associate with him.

Albert, Joey’s original master, falls head over heels for the young colt and they become life-long friends. However, it is not just kindness and affection that exceptional horses inspire in their humans, of course, but also a deep-seated urge for grandeur, nobility, and bravery.

Trooper Warren, one of Joey’s many riders in the novel, articulates this sentiment best. While sitting astride Joey, preparing to cross No-Man’s Land in a regiment-wide cavalry charge, Warren talks to the horse aloud: “Joey,” he says, “You’ve given me back my confidence. [I] feel I can do anything now. I feel like one of those knights in armor when I’m up on you.” Joey has transformed this shy blacksmith into a medieval knight of yore, ready to do the king’s bidding for God and Country, as his countrymen had been doing for centuries upon centuries.

It is easy for us, with a century of perspective, to shake our heads ominously at the cavalry charges of World War I. The ludicrous image of men in beefeater hats, brandishing swords and lances, charging headlong into machine guns and mustard gas is, perhaps, more than anything else, truly iconic of the senselessness and stupidity of the First World War.

Such hindsight was unavailable, however, to the millions of Trooper Warrens—on all sides—who saddled up and rode into battle as an unconscious anachronism. For them, fighting on horses meant armored knights and chivalry—Chivalry, a word that is so very appropriately derived from the French word for “Horse”. Of course Chivalry, then and now, means more than horses. It means honor and tradition and glory—those noble romanticizations of brutal warfare. Yes, chivalry means more than horses—but one is hard-pressed to name another entity quite as emblematic of the concept. World War I was the last major conflict to employ chivalric warfare with horses—and it took a war as brutal as that one to kill the idea.

When Joey and Warren reach the other side of No Man’s land, it is only they and one other pair who have made it across. The rest are dead, or will be made that way soon by the unaffected German infantry. Captain Stewart voices our own thoughts as he surveys the putrid scene: “What a ghastly waste. Maybe now when they see this they’ll understand that you can’t send horses into wire and machine guns.” Oh, Captain Stewart, how optimistic you are.

I think that it is safe to say that World War I killed one version of the Chivalric Myth that had been conjured up by medieval noblemen a few centuries prior. Because of myths like these, we have the illusion that perhaps war was not so terrible before World War I—I’m not so sure that is really the case. War has always been terrible; the First World War was just the first to be so darn honest about it.

For High Plains Public Radio, I’m Daniel Helbert.