Warrior Mirror Feature Jan 6th 2012
A brave horse is a wonderful thing. From next week British filmgoers will marvel at it when Steven Spielberg’s “Warhorse” hits the cinemas. But in our family we have long treasured the memory of a real Warhorse called Warrior.
Warrior was a small sturdy bay thoroughbred who was born in April 1908 a couple of miles from my grandfather General Jack Seely’s home in the west of the Isle of Wight. On August 11th 1914 Jack led Warrior off the boat in Le Havre and in each of the five years of the war the pair of them cheated death a thousand times culminating in leading a crucial cavalry charge against the German breakthrough near Amiens on March 30th 1918. By then those who followed him said “the bullet has not been made that could finish Warrior” and when he finally died in 1941 at the incredibly old age of 33, he was granted an unprecedented obituary in The Times under the title “The Horse The Germans Could Not Kill.”
As a jockey I was lucky enough to ride brave horses over the Grand National fences and at places like Cheltenham, Ascot, Haydock and Sandown. But what grandpa and Warrior did was way off that scale. As early as 30 August 1914 on the retreat from Mons they were in it up to their necks when a cluster of shells fell within yards of them. Any normal thoroughbred would bolt off in terror. But not this one; “To my amazement,” Jack Seely later wrote, “Warrior made no attempt to run away. I could feel him tremble a little between my legs as we trotted through the gate, but he pretended to be quite unperturbed. He was pretending to be brave and succeeding in his task.”
In almost every way Warrior was the exact social opposite of the fictional “Joey” who will steal so many hearts in Steven Spielberg’s film. “Joey” was “Albert” the farm boy’s horse who had been bought at auction and who had to pull the plough before being conscripted into the army and was then captured and endured terrible ordeals before being reunited with Albert. Warrior was the horse the general had bred and himself rode throughout his life in peace and war. But if Warrior had grooms and often stables on the Western Front he never shirked a danger and considering Grandpa was galloping around with a red general’s cap he must have often been nothing less than a bullet magnate. With his bold head and fearless eye he became a symbol of indomitability. “Here’s old Warrior” would be the cry and soldiers would crowd round just to touch him in the hope that some of the magic would rub off.
On one occasion the horse beside him was cut in half, on another the horse whose nose he was touching was shot clean through the neck. Three times his stable was shelled and he escaped through the rubble. He was waiting behind the lines for the never-to-happen break through on the first day of the Somme, he was sunk beneath the mud in the horrors of Passchendaele, he was behind the lead tank in the ill fated attack near Cambrai. Then on March 30th 1918 all of his life and of Jack’s was ultimately on the line.
The Germans had broken through and as things looked bleak as they now threatened Amiens with the Allied Fifth Army in ragged retreat. Jack Seely with a thousand men of the Canadian Cavalry behind him decided desperate times needed desperate measures and set to gallop his men and horses across open ground to storm the enemy in Moreuil Wood. To do this a 20 man signal group would first have to lead the way. The officer in charge would normally be a young (and disposable) Lieutenant. But Jack Seely, a former Cabinet Minister tough enough to row in the local lifeboat, was no shrinking violet. Nor, most certainly, was Warrior.
“He was determined to go forward” wrote Grandpa in that old fashioned way of his. “There was, of course, a hail of bullets and perhaps half of us were hit but Warrior cared for nothing. His one idea was to get at the enemy. He almost buried his head in the brushwood when we reached the wood at the chosen spot.” Hundreds of horses died that day, just as over 8 million horses and mules perished in the course of the war. But Warrior was more than just a survivor. He was a four legged inspiration whose legend should never die and for whom the “Warhorse” film has given a great revival.
In the film much is made of how the thousands of now unwanted horses were auctioned off in France at the end of the war and of how “Joey” was finally saved from the horse butcher’s bid. Such an ordeal would be unthinkable for Warrior and after the war he became quite a celebrity. He attended victory parades in Hyde Park, was visited by adoring fans, and in 1922 actually won the lightweight race at the Isle of Wight point to point ridden by “Young Jim” Jolliffe, the groom who had first cared for him.
The date of that point to point victory was March 30th 1922, exactly 4 years to the day from when Jack and Warrior led that cavalry charge at one of the darkest times of the war, and Jack’s reaction in the winner’s enclosure was typical of their relationship. Instead of slapping the jockey on the back and going off to the bar as is normal custom, he had Warrior re-saddled and rode him home over the Downs, “rejoicing” as he wrote, “in this splendid conclusion of an anniversary which neither of us could ever forget.”
Warrior was 14 at the time and lived on right through the Twenties and Thirties, his fame ever growing. He would be ridden by family members including my mother, he would be petted by guests as distinguished as Queen Mary and Winston Churchill, but most of all he would continue his extraordinary relationship with Jack Seely which in May 1938 saw a unique celebration. Horse and rider trotted through the village with their combined ages (30 and 70) reaching a century. It is a feat as rare as going round a golf course in your own age, but to do it with a horse who had already carried you through four years of the front line of the bloodiest war in history was quite simply beyond even Steven Spielberg and Michael Morpurgo’s wildest imaginings.
Go and see “Warhorse”. Smile and cry at “Joey’s” story, feel pride in what horses did for us, sorrow for all those died. Then wonder again with me at the real deeds of a brave, brave horse called Warrior.
“Warrior, the amazing story of a real Warhorse” is published by Racing Post books at £14.99