Review: War Horse
Historians love war films. We can enjoy the magnificent battle scenes, which get better and better as computer graphics develop; and we can pick them apart. Those of us who study the dynamics of the First World War battlefield get plenty of opportunity.
Two prevailing clichés of the First World War battlefield form the dramatic centrepieces of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, recreated splendidly with all the CGI enhancements movie technicians can muster. Early in the war, cavalry, swords drawn, charge against massed enemy machine guns with naive Napoleonic bravado. At its end, the poor bloody infantry fix bayonets and go over the top into a muddy, shell-swept and wire-entangled landscape of nightmare and death. This is not of course the first time Hollywood has played havoc with military history, and we might excuse this on account of its literary source material. Michael Morpurgo’s now-celebrated book was originally published in 1982 and only brought to prominence by the National Theatre’s spectacular production 30 years later. Yet the repetitious recycling of this pseudo-war – one of brave yet doomed soldiery, outmoded military methods and irredeemable battlefield folly which took deep root in anti-establishment 1960s Britain, and set firm in the BBC’s seminal 1989 comedy Blackadder Goes Forth – does history no favours. What actually happened on Joey’s battlefields was rather different.
By autumn 1914 the British army was embroiled in its first close-range trench battle in Flanders. In War Horse Joey’s regiment arrive fresh to that fight after practicing the cavalry charge in the splendid park of an English country house. Although the fixed lines of the Western Front were established by October 1914, there is not a trench in sight; yet the woods surrounding the camp are packed with machine guns. The cavalry are slaughtered, Joey’s rider among them, and Joey’s fate to pull German transport for the rest of the war is sealed. However, there were no cavalry charges in the First Battle of Ypres, when every man was needed to hold a thin line of improvised field defences protecting the Channel Ports. Cavalrymen fought dismounted as infantrymen, with rifles. German machine guns were few; each battalion had only two in 1914. The Germans were on the offensive, while the British held on desperately. Joey would have been stabled well away from that particular battlefield. There are no Generals in War Horse. In the desperate defensive battles of autumn 1914 even the most foolish would not have sanctioned the sort of charge depicted in this film.
The action concludes on the Somme in 1918. The Second Battle of the Somme was fought in August 1918 on the old 1916 battlefields overgrown with meadow flowers and bleached chalk-white by the hot summer sun – how could such a bucolic landscape be a Great War battlefield? A victorious one too: by that highly successful phase of the war, offensive techniques had advanced to the point where infantry customarily left their trenches following a creeping barrage of shells which swept through the enemy positions as they advanced, minimising attackers’ casualties and allowing a relatively easy passage across no-man’s-land. But on Spielberg’s battlefield the only shells exploding are the enemy’s. By 1918 counter-barrages would have neutralised the enemy’s artillery before an attack was launched. The assault troops had by then adopted modern infantry tactics, in which small groups of men fought with specialised weapons, the precursor to those still seen in the many documentaries of our twenty-first century wars. The charge en masse with rifle and bayonet had been abandoned during the Somme offensive.
Some might say that such tactical trivia is only of interest to the more obsessive of military buffs. Yet I pity the film’s historical advisers, for this is what Hollywood has reduced them to. Characters’ military uniforms evolve appropriately with the development of the war, their buttons and badges are exact and the weaponry is correct. Inauthenticity in the minutiae of the historical setting is inexcusable. Yet the history itself can be clichéd or spurious and the historical advisers have to hold their tongues as the dramatic narrative thrust reiterates a catalogue of folly and disaster which historians no longer recognise. Much was learned on the battlefield between 1914 and 1918, which ultimately allowed the British army to master its enemy, and for Joey and Albert to return home bloodied yet victorious. But Britain’s cultural Great War has still to be reconciled with its historical one. Our first modern war persists in a netherworld of received wisdom and misperception, peremptorily reduced to a few recurrent tropes long-since detached from the war as it was fought. It was a new sort of war on an industrial scale; a hard fought war with the usual amount of military mistakes and battlefield horrors; but a real war and not that of its recurrent cinematic truisms. With its centenaries approaching we can expect many more Great War films over the next few years. Can we ask them now to get that war right?
William Philpott is Professor of the History of Warfare at King's College, London.
From The Archive
Gervase Phillips explores the true story of the horses and mules that served the British army during the First World War.
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