Thursday, 19 January 2012

War Horse Poetry

The most famous horse in war poetry was made out of wood. The Trojans do not seem to have been especially bright.

Poetry of the First World War mentions horses rarely. Hardy's 'In Time of "The Breaking of Nations"' and Thomas's 'As the team's head-brass' describe horses ploughing the English countryside, and there are passing references to horses at the Front in Hardy's '"And There Was a Great Calm"', Borden's 'At the Somme', Grenfell's 'Into Battle' and Gurney's 'Pain'. The last of these is particularly powerful:

Seeing the pitiful eyes of men foredone,
Or horses shot, too tired merely to stir,
Dying in shell-holes both, slain by the mud.

The story which comes closest to full-blown Spielbergian sentimentality, however, is told by Charlotte Fyfe in The Tears of War, an account of the doomed love affair between May Wedderburn Cannan and Bevil Quiller-Couch (son of Q). In August 1918, Cannan was working for a branch of M15 in the War Office Department in Paris. Two days after the Armistice, she became engaged to Bevil Quiller-Couch, who had come to Paris on leave to propose. Having survived the War and won the Military Cross, Quiller-Couch rejoined his battery in Germany early in 1919, but became ill in early February, and died of pneumonia following flu. The poems in Cannan's second book, The Splendid Days, chart the descent from the exhilaration of the Armistice and reciprocated love, to the devastation caused by her fiancĂ©’s death.

Q acquired his son's warhorse, Peggy, at auction, and brought her back to Fowey where she lived out her remaining years. On first meeting her, Q felt the bond: 'Whether or not she detected something familiar in my footstep when I went into the loose box, she was waiting for me. Took no notice of the stableman, but came straight to me, snuffled me all over the chest and then bent down her neck like "Royal Egypt". While I stroked her, she nuzzled my wrist and back of my other hand... It sounds silly, but it seemed as if the creature really did know something and was trying to say it.'

May remained close to her would-have-been father-in-law, and rode Peggy on her visits to Fowey. She wrote a 32-line poem called 'Riding', which is published only in The Tears of War:

The roads are narrow in Cornwall and set between
Stiff wind-cropped hedges that shelter as you ride;
They were sadder roads and bare that he knew in France
The poplars on each side...

He must have ridden her often, felt the lilt
Of the sure swift strength moving between his knees,
And I came near him a second, riding so,
Dreams, but Love lives by these.

Any other horses?


  1. Another Gurney with an incidental horse:

    The Colonel

    Keen, cool, and alert he sits his horse,
    Without a touch of swank or Army Tosh;
    A figure and face of force,
    One who would get his way as a matter of course –
    Just the man to put the wind up Brother Bosche.

    (November 1916)

  2. There is Gilbert Frankau's "Gun Teams (Loos, September 1915)", which is exclusively about their travails, and ends as follows: "Know the worth of humble servants, foolish-faithful to their gun." I discovered it via Philip Larkin's Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse (famous/infamous, as you know, for its large number of poems about animals -- among other things).

  3. Another poem comes to mind, which is Rosenberg's Dead Man's Dump - assuming that "quivering-bellied mules" count as horses (horses would certainly say nay...)

  4. It's curious how absent horses are from Sassoon's verse. You'd think he'd have echoed Elgar's famous outcry given their importance to him before the war. R.B. Cunninghame Graham bought horses for the army in Argentina and wrote a couple of essays meditating on their fates in France.

  5. T A Girling's "Dumb Heroes" is specifically about horses in WW1.

  6. I'd like to think the WW1 poets who were silent on the subject thought as I do, that no war horse in poetry would ever be more moving than Arnold's Ruksh in "Sohrab and Rustum"...

  7. Thank you. Some great suggestions here. Switiching wars, I would recommend Keith Douglas's 'Aristocrats' --- 'The noble horse with courage in his eye' --- although the 'horse' turns out to be human. Douglas also has an extraordinary story called 'Death of a Horse'. Muldoon's war poems tend to have horses in them; come to think of it, just about ALL his poems seem to. Then, of course, there are the unnamed horses in 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'.

  8. As Tim says, great suggestions. I did a comparative study involving German as well as English WWI poetry, and noticing how often cavalry and riding came up in the German poetry I looked out for (and failed to find) the same in my English research. Like Roger I was struck by the absence of references to riding in Sassoon. I thought the difference might be Eastern versus Western Front, but it could also be because of the different poetic traditions.

  9. Elizabeth Vandiver10 February 2012 at 03:48

    From Frederic Manning's 'Transport' (a poem I want to write about some day):

    And into a patch of moonlight,
    With beautiful curved necks and manes,
    Heads reined back, and nostrils dilated,
    Impatient of restraint,
    Pass two grey stallions,
    Such as Oenetia bred;
    Beautiful as the horses of Hippolytus
    Carven on some antique frieze.
    And my heart rejoices seeing their strength in play,
    The mere animal life of them,
    As a thing passionate and proud.

    Then again the limbers and grotesque mules.

    (From Eidola, 1917)

  10. try "a soldiers kiss" by Henry Chappell, well known poem and picture.

  11. You can find the full text of the poem 'Riding', along with a picture of Peggy the horse, on the poems page of May's website at

    Clara (May's granddaughter)