Remembering the real war horses

September 1, 2011

Joey is the world's most famous fictional war horse, but there were many other equines who were the real deal - toiling in their millions on battlefields.

Old Bill - one of the first war horses rescued by Dorothy Brooke in 1931. His photo featured in her original appeal to the Morning Post (now Daily Telegraph) in 1931.
© The Brooke

One of the first horses rescued by Dorothy Brooke after her appeal in 1931. All British army horses were branded with a broad arrow on the left hind quarter. © The Brooke

Joey, the star of the acclaimed stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's children book, "War Horse", has thrown the spotlight on the equine warriors, but a new exhibition aims to acknowledge the real-life contribution of horses that went to war.

The National Army Museum in London, is holding an exhibition, War Horse; Fact & Fiction, from October 22, exploring the compelling real-life stories of the horses and the men who depended on them.

The exhibition will also feature exclusive material from Morpurgo, the National Theatre, where the book was first adapted for stage, and the Spielberg-directed film, set to open in the US around Christmas.

The exhibition is set to run for more than a year.

It is also fitting that the British-based charity, The Brooke, which helps working animals around the world, has been asked to contribute.

The Brooke can trace its roots back to World War 1, when its founder, Dorothy Brooke, rescued former war horses from a life of hard labour in Cairo, Egypt.

It will be lending items from its archive for the exhibition.

It is hoped the exhibition will get visitors thinking about the millions of war horses who have supported the British Army across time.

The book War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo.
Brooke chief executive Petra Ingram said the charity was delighted to be involved.

"With the huge success of the book and stage play 'War Horse', and the impending release of the film, it's timely to remember the thousands of horses, donkeys and mules who served gallantly in times of conflict," she said.

After World War 1, thousands of horses from the British, Australian and American forces were sold into a life of hard labour in Egypt.

In 1930, Dorothy Brooke arrived in Egypt with her brigadier husband and went looking for many of these war horses, being used as beasts of burden on the streets of Cairo.

Dorothy wrote to The Morning Post - now The Daily Telegraph - exposing their plight and the British public were so moved, they raised enough money to help 5000 animals.

Aware many more working horses needed help, Dorothy set up the Brooke Hospital for Animals in 1934 and the 'Old War Memorial Hospital' in Cairo was born.

From its humble beginnings, the Brooke has grown into an international lifesaver, working in poor communities across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

It is dedicated to improving the lives of working horses, donkeys and mules through free veterinary treatment and community programmes and this year will reach more than one million animals.

"War Horse: Fact & Fiction gives the Museum the opportunity to celebrate Michael Morpurgo's book and tell the true stories of war horses from across time," National Army Museum Director Janice Murray said.

"The items generously being lent to us by the Brooke have been vital in helping us to tell of the treatment of the war horse beyond conflict and the legacy for working horses around the world today."

Dorothy Brooke in the yard of the SPCA in Cairo with some of the war horses she rescued in the 1930s. © The Brooke