Given that the recent days have been rightfully occupied by the remembering of the humans who never made it home from World War I, I thought I might highlight a less represented species, many of whom also never made it home from that war.
It’s said that hundreds of thousands of horses were employed over those four years: not just for carrying men, but also goods and artillery up to the front line. The author of the poem below saw that war with his own eyes, and, indeed, he may well have actually happened upon the encounter so touchingly described below.
The Battery Horse
by Lance-Corporal E.R. Henry
He whinnied low as I passed by,
It was a pleading sort of cry;
His rider, slain while going back,
Lay huddled on the muddy track.
And he, without a guiding hand,
Had strayed out on the boggy land;
And, held there by the treacherous mire,
Lay exposed to shrapnel fire.
He was a wiry chestnut steed,
A type of good Australian breed;
Perhaps on good Monaro’s height
He’d followed in the wild steer’s flight,
Or out beyond the great divide
Roamed free where salt-bush plains are wide.
Or, through the golden wattle groves
Had rounded up the sheep in droves . . .
Then, shipped away to feed the guns,
And help the boys to strafe the Huns.
His load was eighteen-pounder shells,
The sort that in a barrage tells.
I drew the shells from out their sheaf
And cut his girth from underneath,
Then lifted off his saddle pack
To ease the weight, and free his back.
His muzzle softly nosed my hand
Because I seemed to understand.
My steel hat from an old-time trench
I filled three times his thirst to quench;
I brought my ration-biscuits back,
And fed him from my haversack.
No horse that had been stable-fed
More proudly tossed his chestnut head
Because a stranger saw his need,
And passing, stayed to give him feed.
But time pressed on, I must not stay;
Four weary miles before me lay.
He made a gallant bid to rise . . .
Then sank with almost human sighs.
I hoped a team might see his plight,
And draw him out before the night.
Now you may ask: why in this strife,
When times were grim and death was rife,
I should have ventured from my course
To try and help a battery horse?
I’ll tell you why I felt his need …
I’ve owned and loved a chestnut steed.
Not only was the above poem never published; it’d remained forever in a box in a family member’s attic, until five years ago, at which time, an anthology was published: “Tommy Rot … WWI Poetry They Didn’t Let You Read.”(Tommy is a nickname by which British unranked soldiers referred to themselves, as the Hun in the poem refers to the Germans.)
“Tommy Rot” was collected from hundreds of private letters, private collections, and archives. It contains many hard-hitting and vivid accounts from the very front of the front line (whereas most of the “known” war poets at that time—or those who subsequently became known, even posthumously—were officers of some sort, and thus generally not as exposed to the “front”—and not so readily sacrificed).
Indeed, of the hundreds of poems in the anthology, the author of only one was known as a poet. The rest were just lowly ranked or unranked soldiers who were blessed with the ability to write, trying to convey in letters to their families how things REALLY were—many of whom never got the chance to subsequently tell their families in person how things really were.
It’s for this reason that the powers-that-be made sure that they didn’t let you read until now.
Monty Phillips is a 54-year-old driver who grew up in England, but he’s been living in Provence, France, for the last 17–18 years; he also spends three months every year in Nepal.