Over There: ‘War Horse’ and World War I

German cavalry under American fire in World War I. (Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images)

The First World War (1914-1918) is revisited, in all its horror, in War Horse, the new film from director Steven Spielberg.

Based on a novel of the same name by English author Michael Morpurgo, War Horse follows the adventures of its four-legged equine hero, Joey, as he is tamed and trained by a Devonshire farm lad. When the war breaks out, Joey is sold into service as a British officer’s mount and shipped over to the European battlefields. As the war drags on, the horse is captured and toils for the German army, dragging a heavy artillery gun, and later finds himself stuck amidst the barbed wire in No Man’s Land.

That Joey – warning, spoiler ahead – manages to survive makes him one of the lucky ones, both among the horses and the men who served in WWI. The casualties were mind-boggling, with more than 10 million military deaths on both sides and 7 million civilians. Of those, nearly a million of the dead soldiers came from the British Empire; a generation was cut down or badly wounded and the effects resounded for years.

For anyone seeing War Horse who wants to know more about WWI, there are a number of fascinating on-line archives that explore the conflict’s history in detail. With their mix of film footage, audio and old photos, they offer a veracity no Hollywood film, no matter how accurate, can hope to duplicate.

Here are several sites worth exploring:

The World War One Film Archive: 

For archival film footage featuring British soldiers, military encampments and battles, it’s hard to beat the World War One Film Archive (http://www.ww1photos.com/WW1FilmArchiveIndex.html). Just keep in mind that the films were shot back in the era of silent movies, so don’t expect talking or sound.

For a sample of the material you’ll find in the archive, take a look at this footage of the “Royal Horse Artillery Waiting to Move Out,” shot on the Western Front in 1915:

The Blue Cross

The Blue Cross, a British animal protection group, has recently opened to the public and put on-line for the first time its archives about how it aided war horses during the Great War (http://www.bluecross.org.uk/95099/the-blue-crosss-war-horse-collection.html). The site features film footage, audio slideshows, and other fascinating material about the organization’s efforts during WWI, which included treating 50,000 horses in Blue Cross animal hospitals in France.

World War I promotional poster for The Blue Cross Fund

National Army Museum

Wondering how much of what happens in War Horse is actually real? Find the answers at the National Army Museum in London, which is currently offering an exhibition entitled “War Horse: Fact & Fiction.” A visit to its web site (http://www.nam.ac.uk/microsites/war-horse/explore/) gives intriguing glimpses of the exhibition’s contents. For anyone heading over to London for the holidays, a stop at the museum is a must. (The exhibit runs through next August.)

BBC’s History – World War I

If you really want to delve in the history of WWI, the BBC has a history site (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/) that is full of battlefield diagrams, excerpts from the diaries and letters of British soldiers, and even a virtual tour showing what life was like in the trenches on the front lines. It’s full of intriguing and startling factoids, such as that the average soldier saw no more than 5 to 10 days of combat in a year and that, by war’s end, the British Army had treated 80,000 men for shell shock.

Finally, if after all this immersion in the bloody reality of WWI, you’re looking for a little similarly themed, historical, holiday diversion, might I suggest viewing Joyeux Noel, a 2005 film based on an actual battlefield story from 1914. It tells how, on Christmas Eve, a group of Scottish, French and German soldiers called an unofficial truce and celebrated together across No Man’s Land. Gary Lewis and Ian Richardson are among the stars.