War Horse (book)

War Horse
First edition
Author Michael Morpurgo
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre War-novel
Publisher Kaye & Ward
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
OCLC 70630557
Preceded by The White Horse of Zennor: And Other Stories from below the Eagle's Nest
Followed by

Twist of Gold

Sequel Farm Boy

War Horse is a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo. It was first published in Great Britain by Kaye & Ward in 1982. The story recounts the experiences of Joey, a horse purchased by the Army for service in World War I France and the attempts of young Albert, his previous owner, to bring him safely home. It formed the basis of both an award winning play (2007) and an acclaimed film (2011).


After meeting a World War I veteran, Wilfred Ellis, who drank in his local pub at Iddesleigh and who had been in the Devon Yeomanry working with horses, Morpurgo began to think of telling the story of the universal suffering of the Great War through a horse's viewpoint, but was unsure that he could do it.[1] He also met another villager, Captain Budgett, who had been in the cavalry in the Great War, and a third villager, Albert Weeks, who remembered the Army coming to the village to buy horses.[2] Morpurgo thanks these three men in the dedication of the book.[3][4]

With his wife, Morpurgo had founded Farms for City Children, a charity where inner city children live and work on rural farms for a week.[5] Interviewed by Fi Glover on Saturday Live on BBC Radio 4 in December 2010, Morpurgo recounted the event that convinced him he could write the book:

One of the kids who came to the farm from Birmingham, a boy called Billy, the teachers warned me that he had a stammer and told me not to ask him direct questions because it would terrify him if he had to be made to speak because he doesn’t speak...I came in the last evening into the yard behind this big Victorian house where they all live, and there he was, Billy, standing in his slippers by the stable door and the lantern above his head, talking. Talking, talking, talking, to the horse. And the horse, Hebe, had her head just over the top of the stable, and she was listening; that’s what I noticed, that the ears were going, and I knew she knew that she had to stay there whilst this went on, because this kid wanted to talk, and the horse wanted to listen—this was a two way thing...I went and got the teachers, and brought them up through the vegetable garden, and we stood there in the shadows, and we listened to Billy talking, and they were completely amazed how this child who couldn’t get a word out—the words were simply flowing. All the fear had gone, and there was something about the intimacy of this relationship, the trust building up between boy and horse, that I found enormously moving, and I thought: Well yes, you could write a story about the First World War through the eyes of a horse, let the horse tell the story, and let the story of the war come through the soldiers—British soldiers first of all, then German soldiers, then a French family with whom the horse spends winters, and that maybe you’ll then get a universal idea of the suffering of the First World War. So I just...wrote like a horse for about six months.[6]

Billy was not the child's real name.[2] Morpurgo later recalled, "As I listened to this boy telling the horse everything he'd done on the farm that day, I suddenly had the idea that of course the horse didn't understand every word, but that she knew it was important for her to stand there and be there for this child."[7]

Another inspiration for the book, after meeting the veterans and seeing Billy with Hebe the horse, was an old oil painting that Morpurgo's wife Clare had been left: "It was a very frightening and alarming painting, not the sort you'd want to hang on a wall. It showed horses during the First World War charging into barbed wire fences. It haunted me."[8][9] The painting was by F. W. Reed and was dated 1917, and showed a British cavalry charge on German lines, with horses entangled in barbed wire.[10] Morpurgo wrote a fictionalised version of this painting in his "Author's Note" at the start of the book. In his version, the painting shows a red bay with a white cross on his forehead, and the painting bears the legend: "Joey. Painted by Captain James Nicholls, autumn 1914."[3]


The book was runner-up for the Whitbread Book Award in 1982.


The book has also been made into a play adapted by Nick Stafford. The play, also called War Horse, was staged at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre in London. The production opened on 17 October 2007 and was met with critical acclaim – its use of life-size puppets of horses from the Handspring Puppet Company won an Olivier Award, Evening Standard Theatre Award and London Critics' Circle Theatre Award for design.[11] In February 2010 it was revealed that the play would transfer to Broadway in New York City, New York, United States.

In May 2010, it was announced Steven Spielberg would direct the movie adaptation with Richard Curtis and Lee Hall writing the screenplay.[12] Jeremy Irvine was cast in the lead role.[13] The full cast was revealed on 17 June 2010.[14] It was released on 25 December 2011.[15]

A radio adaptation of the book was broadcast on BBC Radio 2 on 8 November 2008.[16] It featured Timothy Spall starring as the voice of Albert, Brenda Blethyn as Mother and Bob Hoskins as Sergeant Thunder. The radio play was rebroadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra on 11 November 2011 as part of a special Remembrance sequence.

Further information

War Horse is one of five children's books that deal with war that was featured in a special exhibition titled Once Upon a Wartime – Classic War Stories for Children at the Imperial War Museum in London, that ran from 11 February – 30 October 2011.[17] The exhibition details the historical background to the story, and exhibits include pages from Morpurgo's original draft of the novel.[18]

On its first publication in 1982 the book was only translated into a 'handful' of languages. As a side effect of the interest in the film adaptation by Steven Spielberg, the publishers of the book have recently been "inundated" with requests for translation rights for the book to coincide with the film's release in late 2011.[19]

The painting mentioned in the preface of the book, a portrait of Joey painted by Captain Nicholls and now hanging in the Village Hall (of an unnamed village), was a fiction of Morpurgo's. However, particularly since the success of the stage version of the book, so many tourists have come to the village of Iddesleigh, where Morpurgo lives, and asked to see the painting in the village hall, that in 2011 Morpurgo commissioned an artist to paint just such an oil painting to hang there. He used equine artist Ali Bannister, who acted as the chief "equine hair and make-up" artist on the Steven Spielberg film of the book, and who also drew the sketches of Joey seen in the film.[20]

An exhibition entitled War Horse: Fact & Fiction opened in October 2011 at the National Army Museum exploring the novel alongside real-life stories of horses involved in war and the men who depended on them, and also drawing on the play and film adaptations of the novel.[21]


  1. ^ "Once upon a life: Michael Morpurgo". The Observer (London). 11 July 2010. Retrieved 4 February 2011. 
  2. ^ a b Morpurgo, Michael. "How my War Horse won its spurs with Steven Spielberg". Daily Mail (London). Retrieved 20 February 2011. 
  3. ^ a b "WarHorse". Archived from the original on 2012-03-15. 
  4. ^ Morpurgo, Michael (1 Jan 2014). "First world war centenary is a year to honour the dead but not to glorify". The Guardian. 
  5. ^ "Undaunted Author of ‘War Horse’ Reflects on Unlikely Hit," New York Times (US). April 12, 2011, retrieved 2011-04-17.
  6. ^ Fi Glover and Michael Morpurgo (2010). Saturday Live. BBC. 
  7. ^ Lyall (12 April 2011). "Undaunted Author". New York Times. 
  8. ^ Brooke, Simon (29 January 2010). "My perfect weekend: Michael Morpurgo". The Daily Telegraph (London). 
  9. ^ Morpurgo, Michael (13 October 2007). "War Horse: When Horses were heroes". The Daily Telegraph (London). 
  10. ^ http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/showbiz/article-23669235-morpurgo-war-horse-is-a-story-i-had-to-write.do
  11. ^ Handspring Puppet Company": 2007 Awards
  12. ^ http://archive.is/20130125114443/http://www.hollywood.com/news/Spielberg_to_Direct_WWI_Movie_War_Horse/6863585
  13. ^ "Exclusive: War Horse Cast Announced". Empire (magazine). 17 June 2010. Retrieved 2010-06-17. taking the lead (or the reins) is young actor Jeremy Irvine, who has earned his stripes with both the National Youth Theatre and the RSC. 
  14. ^ "Cast Revealed For Spielberg’s War Horse, Lead Role Goes Elsewhere". The Film Stage. 17 June 2010. Retrieved 17 June 2010. 
  15. ^ McClintock, Pamela (13 October 2010). "'"DreamWorks' holiday 'War Horse. Variety (Los Angeles). Retrieved 2011-02-27. 
  16. ^ BBC Radio 2, The War Horse, 1900h, 8 November 2008
  17. ^ Imperial War Museum. "Once Upon a Wartime - Classic War Stories for Children". Archived from the original on 15 December 2010. Retrieved 17 April 2013. 
  18. ^ http://www.playingbythebook.net/2011/02/23/how-to-explore-war-with-children-part-1/
  19. ^ Taylor, Jerome (19 June 2010). "'"Europe's finest join up for 'War Horse. The Independent (London). Retrieved 2011-02-27. 
  20. ^ Butcher, Emily (31 October 2011). "Morpurgo’s myth revealed". National Army Museum. Retrieved 2011-11-08. 
  21. ^ "War Horse: fact and fiction". National Army Museum website. Retrieved 2 December 2011. 

External links

  • in 2007 about the genesis of the bookThe Daily TelegraphMorpurgo writes in
  • in 2010 about the genesis of the bookThe ObserverMorpurgo writes in
  • 2011 interview with Morpurgo about the book
  • Warrior Real War Horse
  • The Mighty Warrior – Extended story of the Canadian cavalry horse
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