As Steven Spielberg’s “Warhorse” hits our cinemas in all its moving but fictional glory it’s time to praise some of the actual warhorses who braved so much danger in World War. Let’s have it for Warrior and Romeo.
By now Warrior hardly needs any introduction. Since we published “Warrior, the amazing story of a real Warhorse” in October there has been wonderful public interest (not to mention extremely gratifying book sales) in the tale my grandfather General Jack Seely first wrote in 1934 about the thoroughbred he bred in the Isle of Wight in 1908, on which he survived countless horrors between 1914/1918 and whom was still riding in 1938 when their combined ages (30 + 70) came to 100. But Romeo?
Romeo was a “Waler”. That is he was foaled in 1906 in New South Wales and after being bought for Government Service in India became famed as a “pigsticker” in Meerut between 1912-1914. He must have thought Australia to India quite a voyage, but what about the culture shock of sailing from India for war duty in France where he landed on 7th November 1914 to face four of the worst winters on record?
Warrior was at Mons, Ypres, The Somme, Passchendael, Cambrai and actually led a vital cavalry charge during the great German offensive towards Amiens in March 1918. But Romeo, ridden by Major George Watson of the RHA also never shirked a battle. He was at Loos, the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Cambrai, the big German attack in March 1918 and was involved right up to the 11 November Armistice despite George Watson being killed commanding ‘O’ Battery of the RHA.
As everyone who watches “Warhorse” will realize, horses were uniquely vulnerable targets during WW1. But Warrior dodged shells and bullets and burning stables to such an extent that when he finally died in 1941 at the mighty age of 33, The Times ran an obituary about “The Horse the Germans could not kill.” Romeo was twice wounded but like Warrior he was successful even in his down time, both horses winning show jumping events behind the lines, one of Romeo’s being first prize in the 20th Division show. By 1918 you might think their honours were over. You would be wrong.
There was a racecourse at Spa in Belgium and before Romeo returned to England he won the 5th Cavalry Brigade and 3rd Brigade RHA steeplechases over that track. Back home the Isle of Wight point to point was then (unlike now) actually on the Island and after being second in 1921, Warrior won the Lightweight race on March 30th 1922, exactly four years to the day since he had led the Canadian Cavalry signal troop in that death defying charge against the Germans at Moreuil Wood.
In 1919 Romeo was bought out of the army by George Watson’s cousin Verena, Lady Chadwyck-Healey the maternal grandmother of that stylish point to point rider and Overbury Stud owner Tim Holland Martin whom I remember as an impossibly elegant top hat and swallow tailed figure with the North Cotswold way back in the 1950s. Verena hunted Romeo with the Devon and Somerset on Exmoor, the Chiddingfold in Surrey and the Heythrop in Oxfordshire. In 1922 he was, as coincidentally Warrior also was, painted by the talented Gilbert Holiday and he was still going strong when a bad tendon injury ended things in 1932.
As already written, Warrior lived right on to 1941 and in 1934 grandpa was not only able to write up his story for posterity as “My Horse Warrior”, but also was able to call on his friend Alfred Munnings to come down to the Isle of Wight and add a unique set of illustrations. Our new book uses all of these and its success has been such that even in the last week I have had to write full length features for both the Sunday Times and the Daily Mirror, have done interviews for BBC South, a documentary for Channel 4 in the Isle of Wight and Sky Arts are due to arrive on Tuesday.
My whole family are thrilled that so many people are now sharing Warrior’s posthumous days in the sun but there must be many more stories like that of Romeo. The greatest thing about “Warhorse” in the cinema is that the 1914-18 horses are at last receiving their due. If you do know of any more Romeos, or of any “Centenary” horse and riders like grandpa and Warrior, let’s tell the world now.