https://insideDIO.blog.gov.uk/2014/10/09/searching-for-war-horse/

Searching for War Horse

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, you’re bound to have heard something about War Horse. It started life as a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, about the wartime experiences of a horse named Joey who was part of the British cavalry in World War One.

In recent years, it has been made into a phenomenally successful stage show, with actors operating beautiful puppets to represent the horses - having been instructed on how horses move and behave by a Battery Sergeant Major from the Royal Artillery. It’s even made it onto the silver screen, courtesy of a Hollywood film directed by Stephen Spielberg.

One of the puppets used to portray Joey in the 'War Horse' stage show. (Steve Jurvetson, via Flickr Creative Commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/5528028802/in/set-27718)
One of the puppets used to portray Joey in the 'War Horse' stage show. (Steve Jurvetson, via Flickr Creative Commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/5528028802/in/set-27718)

The story is fiction, of course, but there were large numbers of horses involved in World War One in all sorts of capacities, including for cavalry, pulling supplies, artillery and hospital wagons. In 1917, there were nearly 870,000 horses and mules working for the Army, often in much the same awful conditions as the men at the front. This meant that veterinary facilities were vital.

A horse is discharged from a veterinary hospital in France in 1918. (Royal Library of Scotland via Flickr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/nlscotland/4688608606)
A horse is discharged from a veterinary hospital in France in 1918. (Royal Library of Scotland via Flickr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/nlscotland/4688608606)

 

Digging War Horse

If you’ve read previous blogs, you’ll be familiar with Operation Nightingale, a joint venture between DIO and The Rifles to allow wounded or traumatised veterans and service personnel to take part in archaeological digs on the military estate, which can play a part in helping their recovery. One recent project, named ‘Digging War Horse’ was to examine the suspected site of the horse hospital from the First World War.

A metal badge from an Australian soldier. [Richard Osgood; Crown Copyright]
A metal badge from an Australian soldier. [Richard Osgood; Crown Copyright]
The site was at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain, which was used in the First World War, as it still is today, for artillery training. We were delighted to be joined by some serving soldiers from the Royal School of Artillery at times during the two week dig.

We knew there had been a hospital for soldiers there and there are references on heritage lists to an equine equivalent. To decide where to dig, we conducted a walking field survey - the land belongs to the MOD but is farmed by a tenant farmer – looked at maps and conducted a geophysical survey as well as using metal detectors. We then dug test pits to see what turned up and if we were looking in the right place.

We didn’t find anything directly linking to a horse hospital but we did make plenty of other discoveries, including First World War ammunition; buttons and badges from British and Anzac soldiers; part of the periscope from an armoured vehicle; and remains of the buildings which used to stand there. There were also lots of horse shoes.

A number of labelled horseshoes found on the dig. [Richard Osgood; Crown Copyright]
Some of the horseshoes found on the dig. [Richard Osgood; Crown Copyright]
We were fortunate to enjoy good weather during the dig and it really was a great experience. Groups from local schools came out to see what we were up to so who knows, we may have sparked an interest in archaeology in some of them.

Presenting the Project

In January we intend to display the results of the dig to the public. We’ll explain what we did and what we found, alongside other exhibitors – the Royal Artillery will be displaying some of their World War One memorabilia and field guns and visitors will even be able to try trench food. Michael Morpurgo is also going to attend and give a presentation, and we hope that the puppets from the play will also be there for visitors to see.

All in all, it should be a fantastic event. If you’re in the area, keep an eye out for details nearer the time – it would be great to see you there!

The British Army still uses horses, but only for ceremonial reasons. Here, soldiers of the Kings Troop Royal Horse Artillery form up on Horse Guards parade ground as they take over Queen's Life Guard duties from HM The Life Guards in 2010. [Sgt Dan Harmer, Crown Copyright]
The British Army still uses horses, but only for ceremonial reasons. Here, soldiers of the Kings Troop Royal Horse Artillery form up on Horse Guards parade ground as they take over Queen's Life Guard duties from HM The Life Guards in 2010. [Sgt Dan Harmer, Crown Copyright]
 

Read more about 'Digging War Horse' on the project blog and on the blog of Harvey Mills, a professional photographer who took part in and photographed the dig.

 

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