Thank you veterans and war horses for your sacrifice! ~Declan
Churchill's mission to rescue the war horses and how he made officials bring tens of thousands homeBy Chris Hastings
Winston Churchill intervened to secure the safe return of tens of thousands of war horses stranded in Europe after the First World War.
The heroism of the million-strong army of horses that served alongside British troops – often in hellish conditions – is celebrated in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster War Horse, which opens in the UK this month.
And now, historic documents uncovered by The Mail on Sunday reveal many of them were to owe their lives to Churchill’s compassion.
Heroes: Churchill was incensed at the treatment of tens of thousands of Britain's war horses in 1919
British military chiefs were heavily dependent on horsepower to carry men, supplies and artillery, and spent more than £36 million during the war to buy up 1.1 million horses from Britain, Canada and the United States.
War Office documents found in the National Archives at Kew show that tens of thousands of the animals were at risk of disease, hunger and even death at the hands of French and Belgian butchers because bungling officials couldn’t get them home when hostilities drew to a close.
Churchill, then aged 44 and Secretary of State for War, reacted with fury when he was informed of their treatment and took a personal interest in their plight after the 1914-1918 war.
Outraged: The leader fired off angry memos to officials to the the Ministry of Shipping who failed to get the horses back promptly
In a strongly worded missive dated February 13, 1919, Churchill told Lieutenant-General Sir Travers Clarke, then Quartermaster-General: ‘If it is so serious, what have you been doing about it? The letter of the Commander-In-Chief discloses a complete failure on the part of the Ministry of Shipping to meet its obligations and scores of thousands of horses will be left in France under extremely disadvantageous conditions.’
Churchill’s intervention led to extra vessels being used for repatriation, and the number of horses being returned rose to 9,000 a week.
Terry Charman, senior historian with the Imperial War Museum, says Churchill was an animal lover and his motivation could have been based purely on animal-welfare concerns.
‘It is quite possible he could have been moved by the plight of the animals,’ he said. ‘He loved everything from cats to canaries. There is a famous story that on one occasion he was unable to carve a goose which had grown up at his home in Chartwell.
Moving: Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse Joey are featured in 'War Horse', Spielberg's emotional piece
But other more pressing military concerns would also have played their part. Prime Minister Lloyd George had specifically appointed Churchill to the position of Secretary of State in January 1919 to speed up demobilisation.
Churchill would have been mindful that delays in recovering the horses would have been a serious distraction from the main job at hand.
Spielberg’s War Horse is based on the bestselling 1982 children’s book by Michael Morpurgo and tells the story of one boy’s attempts to be reunited with his horse Joey after the animal is sent to the front lines in France.