War horses are useless for victory; their great strength cannot save.
- Psalm 33 v 17
Of over eight million horses, donkeys and mules fighting for Britain in the Great War, Warrior was the most famous. Nicknamed 'the horse the Germans cannot kill', he is perhaps the only horse to have been nominated for the Victoria Cross. Though stormed at by shot and shell he survived four years on the front line, leading a decisive cavalry charge in 1918 which his owner, Jack Seely, described with the words, 'by his supreme courage at a critical moment, he led... forward to victory in perhaps the greatest crisis of the war.' He was frequently painted by the great equestrian artist Sir Alfred Munnings and in 1934 his story was published in My Horse Warrior by General 'Galloper Jack' Seely, republished in 2011.
Four million horses died on the Western Front, through rifle, machine guns, shells and exhaustion. 85,000 of those who survived the war were then utilised as horse meat, half a million horses were sold to French farmers and only 60,000 returned to Britain. Yet despite these odds, this was an environment in which Warrior seemed to thrive, and give heart to a whole army. In 2014 Warrior was posthumously awarded the Dickin medal for his bravery.
Jack Seely and Horses
In 1894 at the age of 25 while on a diplomatic mission in Egypt, which involved giving an Arab tribe some bags of gold to reward their loyalty, Seely was given some advice which he would take to heart for the rest of his life. The sheikh told him,
Your people treat the dog as your friend and the horse as your slave. With us Arabs it is the other way round. Ours is the better plan. Every man should have one horse he cares for beyond anything else.
These prophetic words changed Seely's life. Though he had close relationships with previous horses, the one to whom Seely was closest was Warrior.
An absolutely faithful and fearless soul.
- Jack Seely
Warrior was born in a thatched farm building at Yafford on the Isle of Wight in 1908, the first surviving foal of Jack Seely's beloved mare, Cinderella. At the time the Seely family owned vast tracts of land on the Island, and Jack Seely was an MP. At the time of Cinderella's birth he was the Under Secretary of State and, when not at Parliament lived at Brooke House, in Brook in the West Wight, three miles from Yafford. At the time, Yafford was a well-renowned stud farm run by the Jollife family.
In 1910 when at the age of two, Warrior was trained how to ride into the crashing sea where the Brook lifeboat was stationed. In My Horse Warrior, Seely describes that it was then he realised that Warrior's character was one of determination to overcome any fear. By 1913, when Seely became War Minister, he naturally decided to train Warrior as a charger. Seely was also close friends with F E Smith, later Lord Chancellor of Britain Lord Birkenhead, and Captain Freddie Guest of the 1st Life Guards, Sir Winston Churchill's cousin. Both Guest and Smith were fond of horses and spent time with Warrior before the war.
The Great War
On 5 August 1914, General Seely was in the House of Commons preparing to go to war. He called in every political favour he could think of to ensure that he received a place in the army, and was appointed the British Expeditionary Force's Special Service Officer to Sir John French, who in 1912 Seely had recommended be appointed Field Marshal. Having fought in the Boer War Seely knew too well what to expect, and wondered whether to take Warrior to France with him. He was advised, 'Surely it would be a shame to leave Warrior behind? He would hate it.' Seely, given the honorary rank of Colonel, and Warrior both sailed on the first boat to France.
1914: Not Quite Over By Christmas
In the opening stages of the war, France's military tactics had been anticipated and Germany's efficient aggression came close to defeating the allies. France's troops under General Joseph Joffre planned to attack German-held Alsace-Lorraine en mass. France had lost these areas in the Franco-Prussian War, and it was felt that a bold attack here would gain a swift victory. Joffre considered the British army to be an inconvenience and so positioned the British Expeditionary Force under the command of Sir John French to north France and Belgium, away from where he felt the action would be. Imperial Germany's Alfred von Schlieffen (1833-1913) had long predicted the French army's actions, and instead had advised that the German main attack should be to the north, where the French army would be weakest. The French forces under Lanrezac retreated leaving only 70,000 British troops to face the 170,000-strong German First Army. Outnumbered and surrounded, despite a gallant defence, the British army was forced to retreat.
During the chaos, the German army was halted at the battle of the Marne. Warrior's first close encounter with German artillery was when a shell killed several horses with whom he was stabled at Ferté-sous-Jouarre. Warrior was often ridden by the commander of the British forces, Sir John French, as well as French's Chief aide-de-camp, Freddie Guest. Seely later wrote
[Sir John] French was the life and soul of the [British] defence [of the First Battle of Ypres]. Whenever and wherever things were most desperate, there and then he would be on horseback encouraging his weary men forward to take the place of those who had fallen... often Warrior was the horse he rode.
Warrior often had lucky escapes, and in December 1914 he was taken ill, only for the horse that Seely rode the following day to be wounded. Seely reports that over Christmas 1914, Warrior liked trying to race aeroplanes taking off to the end of the aerodrome.
In January 1915 Seely appealed to Sir John French to allow him to take Warrior back to England with him while he reported to Lord Kitchener, a request that French gladly granted. While Seely was appointed a Brigade General and given command of the 3,000 men of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, he sent Warrior home to spend time reunited with his mother, Cinderella.
Soon Warrior left the Isle of Wight to head to Salisbury Plain, where the Canadian Cavalry Brigade was being assembled. All his life Seely maintained that it was Warrior, and not himself, who gained the respect of the men he commanded,
I never could have earned the love and affection which was granted to me but for Warrior... This handsome, gay, bay thoroughbred, with the white star on his forehead, was my passport wherever I went.... The men got to love him more and more. As I rode along, whether it were in rest billets, in reserve, approaching the line or in the midst of battle, men would say not 'Here comes the General', but 'Here's old Warrior'.
Soon after Warrior was stabled with the Canadian Cavalry Brigade's horses, the Canadian Cavalry was sent to Flanders' fields to serve as infantry reinforcements during the Second Battle of Ypres. Warrior, as the General's horse, was one of the few to travel to the continent. However now Warrior was expected to be close to the front line, and not at the safety of General Headquarters. His front line homes were now behind damp haystacks piled up to provide basic protection from German shells and bullets, or in muddy rat-infested trenches sheltering beneath a tarpaulin stretched over the top.
In his biography of Warrior's life, Seely reports that after a shell burst cut a horse next to Warrior in half, Warrior began following him around wherever he went. He also states that at a time when Warrior was stabled in Petit Douve Farm, the building was completely destroyed by German artillery when 'Warrior was out grazing at the time, and surveyed the burning of his home with interest, but without alarm.' The next stable that Warrior was housed in was similarly destroyed,
My aide-de-camp woke me with a shout saying the house was on fire, and had already been hit about six times! I jumped up in pyjamas and with bare feet, and ran across the yard to Warrior's stable... I could hear Warrior beating against the door with his forefeet. I threw it open and out he bounded. I ran after him to catch his headstall, and before I had gone two yards a shell burst right inside his stable, and knocked the whole place to smithereens. It was a miraculously lucky escape.
After eight months in the trenches, the Canadian Cavalry Brigade was reunited with their horses away from the front line. Warrior was introduced to Seely's son Frank's dark bay horse Akbar, and the two horses soon became inseparable friends. On 1 July, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, Warrior and the Canadian Cavalry Brigade were close to the front. They were ready to gallop through any gap in the German defences that was created, although none was. Warrior stayed close to the front line every day except one, when he was ill. On that day the horse that Seely rode was killed by a shell, with Seely breaking three ribs too.
The closest to death that Warrior came was away from the front line, when it was revealed he was suffering from terrible, internal pain having accidentally swallowed a crooked nail, which was lodged in his intestines. After the nail passed through, Warrior quickly recovered, but it was an agonising period not only for Warrior, but also Seely, forced to helplessly look on, but refusing to leave his beloved companion. On another occasion during the battle of the Somme, Warrior was once completely buried under falling earth when a shell fell near him, fortunately being soon rescued.
In March 1917, Warrior was ridden by Seely when the Canadian Cavalry Brigade pressed forward 20 miles and retook the villages of Equancourt and Guyencourt, an action which led to one of Seely's men being awarded the Victoria Cross.
Soon after, Seely and Warrior were headquartered at Vadencourt, at the top of a ridge near St Quentin, where his men were stationed. To travel to the front line each day, Seely would gallop on Warrior over a ridge and then zig-zag hidden in the valley below, so that the German artillery would not have a chance to target them. Seely said, 'I could almost hear [Warrior] laugh as the shells dropped hundred of yards away, and I know he enjoyed the adventure.'
The Battle of Paschendale was the hardest that Warrior had to endure. Seely later wrote about Warrior's journey to Ypres,
Warrior never flinched from a shell after the first few days.... He would shy at nothing, but as we approached Ypres he shied so violently that I very nearly fell off. What had so disturbed him was a party of some hundreds... digging graves. I found it difficult to get him to go on, and he trembled all over.
...There were many dead horses lying about which had foundered in the mud, and could not be extricated. All of a sudden Warrior went deep into the mud up to his belly... It was only with immense difficulty that the four of us managed to get him back onto solid ground, but it was a narrow escape... We saw very clearly that even if all the Germans went away, infantry could hardly move, and cavalry not at all.
The plan had been for a mass tank attack at Cambrai to break the German defences, which would lead to the cavalry swiftly exploiting the confusion. Unfortunately the bridge over the Canal de L'Escaut collapsed under the weight of the first tank trying to cross.
In December 1917, ten days after the Cambrai attack, Warrior took part in a cavalry charge,
Warrior became a changed horse. He would quiver between me knees, not at all from fear, but from the joy of battle, and when we started to gallop... I could feel the great muscles in his body extending as he bounded forward... The Germans were taken so completely by surprise that very few of my men were hit. We captured several of the enemy, and occupied their improvised trench... I had ridden Warrior all that day, and although there was much rifle-fire and shelling, he escaped unscathed.
Another one of Seely's horses, St Quentin, was not so lucky, being shot in the neck three days later. The cavalry charge had led to Seely's men being isolated and almost surrounded for two and a half days, before being relieved.
After Christmas in early February 1918, Warrior first encountered the 38-year-old Alfred J Munnings, widely regarded as the 20th Century's greatest equestrian artist and later President of the Royal Academy. He had been appointed to make a pictorial record of the Canadian forces at war. Munnings described painting Seely and Warrior with the words,
On a cold still day... Jack Seely was a picture. He sat on no wooden horse, as many of my sitters had done... he was on the patient Warrior, who as the minutes went on, sank deeper and deeper into the mud...
Seely described the same portrait,
Munnings said 'Come along, I want to paint you.' So Warrior and I had to stand stock still while the eminent man drew us. It was a bitterly cold day and painting a portrait in the open air must have been both difficult and unpleasant... The background, at a distance of about 3,500 yards, was German territory. Probably that fact would have deterred most artists from choosing such a place in which to paint a portrait. Not so Munnings; he seemed to think that it added greatly to its interest. Warrior was not of the same opinion, and showed his displeasure by pawing and snorting.
Charged Up: The Battle of Moreuil Woods
In March, the German army began Operation Michael, their final campaign to win the war. During the German advance, the building Warrior was stabled in was hit by a shell and destroyed, but Warrior survived in the one corner of the building still standing. Within days, the enemy had advanced to reach the key town of Amiens. If Amiens fell, the British army would be forced to retreat to defend the vital Channel ports, while the French army would need to retreat to defend Paris, making German victory possible; with Amiens in sight, Kaiser Wilhelm was already celebrating having won the war in Berlin. Seely later described early Saturday 30th March,
General Pitman, who commanded our division, woke me where I was sleeping close to Warrior under a wall. He told me that the German advance had continued, that they had captured the vital Moreuil Ridge... He directed me to take my brigade in that direction... Sitting there on Warrior's back I decided to attempt the apparently impossible - to recapture the Moreuil Ridge. Warrior was strangely excited, all trace of exhaustion gone; he pawed the ground with impatience. In some strange way, without the least doubt, he knew that the crisis in his life had come.
Seely planned to lead the charge of the brigade's signal troop to just outside the Bois de Moreuil, even though it was unheard of for a General to risk himself in this way. He described his charge on Warrior's back by saying,
It seemed clear to me that... I could do this vital thing, and establish the flag and headquarters at the point of the wood so that every man could see... that the first phase of the battle had been won.
... As I have said elsewhere, after nearly four years of war Warrior had learnt to disregard shell-fire, as being part of ordinary war risks, but he had learnt to show great respect for rifle-fire, and would always try to swerve left or right in order, as he clearly understood, to reduce the danger from it. But this day all was changed... Warrior took charge and galloped as hard as he could straight for the front line... He was determined to go forward, and with a great leap started off. All sensation of fear had vanished from him as he galloped on at racing speed... There was of course a hail of bullets from the enemy as we crossed the intervening space, and perhaps half of us were hit, but Warrior cared for nothing. His one idea was to get at the enemy.
...What I must record, and it is indeed the truth, is that so far as I am concerned the credit for this wild adventure, which succeeded in so miraculous a fashion, was due not to me, but to my horse Warrior. He it was who did not hesitate, and did not flinch, though he knew the danger from those swift bullets which he had seen kill so many hundreds of men and horses all around him in the preceding years.
The Battle of Moreuil Wood has been described as the last great cavalry charge, and it broke the German advance, though at a heavy cost. It was probably for Warrior's conduct on this day that Seely nominated him for a Victoria Cross, cheekily adding to the form 'Warrior went everywhere I did', though Warrior was denied on the grounds that he was not human. It would be almost a century before his contribution would be recognised.
Sin Seely Missing You
Two days after the charge, Warrior slipped and fell, hurting his leg. Consequently, Seely borrowed three horses the following day, all of which were killed. That day Seely swallowed a mixture of chlorine, mustard and phosgene gas; his chest never recovered. The commander of the Canadian Cavalry was forced to resort to riding from battle on the back of a mule. Despite desperately trying to stay on the front, Seely was sent home, separated from Warrior who stayed with the Canadian Cavalry Brigade as the horse for his replacement, General Patterson.
Seely and Warrior were reunited on 1 November, 1918. Ten days later the war ended.
Warrior after the War
After the war was won, Warrior soon took part in the Victory Parade that took place in Hyde Park, London in early 1919. Seely said, 'I had a feeling as I rode on Warrior through the streets of London that my wise horse was rather bored by the whole business'. Soon after, both Seely and Warrior returned home to the Isle of Wight.
Four years after the Battle of Moreuil Wood, 30 March, 1922, Warrior won the Isle of Wight Point-to-Point, proving that for all his wartime experiences, he was the fastest horse on the Isle of Wight.
In 1933, Seely was asked to represent Hampshire in the King's Birthday Parade at the last minute, and even though Warrior had not been involved in an official military parade for over seven years, Seely knew instantly which horse he would ride.
I am sure that those present, including the soldiers on parade, thought that I steered Warrior with great skill through all the manoeuvres of taking the Salute that day. They were quite wrong... I had not thought it possible that he would remember all about it after the lapse of so many years. But he did remember, clearly and accurately... Warrior began to lift his forelegs... and arch his neck, clearly conscious of his fine appearance and what was expected of him... It really was a remarkable experience to feel this old horse... rejoicing at going through the ceremonial which he remembered so well.
Warrior also appeared at the 1934 International Horse Show at Olympia. He was initially very nervous of the strange environment, until he heard the sound of a stock-whip performance, which sounded remarkably like rifle-fire. This relaxed Warrior and raised his curiosity.
On 31 May, 1938 Warrior and Seely were mentioned in The Times, when they rode over the Island's Downs together, celebrating their combined age being exactly 100.
In Spring 1941, Warrior was an old horse who was still alive purely through his special corn diet. However 1941 saw increasing levels of rationing, including of corn, and it became increasingly apparent that under those circumstances it could not be justified for a horse, even a war hero, to receive more than a human. Seely could not bear to be on the Island when the vet came to put Warrior down. Soon after his body was taken away as everything that could possibly contribute to the war effort needed to be put to good use.
Distraught, Seely wrote,
I do not believe to quote Byron about his dog Boatswain, 'that he can be denied in heaven the soul that he held on Earth'.
Warrior was 33.
In 1934 Seely wrote My Horse Warrior about him, reprinted as Warrior: The Amazing Story of a Real War Horse in 2011.
In 2012, Channel 4 broadcast the documentary War Horse: The Real Story about Warrior, hosted by Seely's grandson, Brough Scott.
In 2014 a statue of Warrior and Seely was unveiled at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. Later that year he became the first animal from the Great War to be awarded the PDSA Dickin Medal, sometimes nicknamed 'The animal Victoria Cross'. Steven Spielberg, director of War Horse, said,
Warrior is an extraordinary example of the resilience, strength, and profound contribution that horses made to the Great War. Recognising him with an Honorary PDSA Dickin Medal is a fitting and poignant tribute not only to this remarkable animal, but to all animals that served.