Two books this week, looking at the work of horses in WW1 and after. Both a thoughtful commentary on the relationships between humans and other animals. Neither with a happy ending.
Our Horses in Egypt starts a few years after the war. Englishwoman and war widow Griselda Romney discovers that one of her horses, used by the army during the war, may still be alive. She had thought of Philomena fighting and dying on the Western front. Instead, she learns that the horse had been sent to Egypt. Off she goes to Egypt, daughter and nanny in tow, in search of Philomena.
Author Rosalind Belben alternates the adventures of Griselda and entourage with those of Philomena at war. It makes for an interesting perspective on the hierarchies of Empire. While Griselda certainly benefits from the privileges of her class and race, she can just as easily suffer when she steps out of the boundaries of “suitable” female behaviour. While the humans about her question Griselda’s impulse to find a horse (shouldn’t she be grieving her dead husband and caring for her children instead?), she feels a responsibility to a fellow creature – one of her own. And she may hold her own – the horse – in higher regard than “foreign” humans.
In Philomena’s war, horses suffer the same as soldiers. Through campaigns in Egypt and Palestine, she is gradually inured to the physical and psychological hardships. Shell shock sets in. Belben deftly conveys the horse’s viewpoint without sinking to anthropomorphism.
Belben’s staccato writing style makes the story hard to follow at first. One must pay strict attention to understand the characters, their connections and their motives. Not to mention all the horsey terminology. But one is soon drawn into the dramas – both human and equine – with empathy, humour and sorrow.
I spotted Bunny the Brave War Horse last fall, on the Remembrance Day display of children’s books at my local library. I was drawn in by the cover illustration of the endearing horse in the war-torn landscape.
Written by Elizabeth MacLeod and illustrated by Marie Lafrance, Bunny the Brave War Horse is based on the true story of police officers and horses from the Toronto mounted police force who fought in WW1. We meet Bunny (so named for his long ears), Thomas Dundas and his brother Bud. Tom and Bud enlisted. Bunny was conscripted.
The story shows the roles horses played in the war – pulling ambulances and supply trucks, hauling artillery, running messages. Any job needing strength or speed. While told in an age-appropriate way, it does not gloss over the horrors of war: the horses face gas attacks, bombardments, severe weather conditions, hunger and death. Soldiers and horses offer comfort to each other.
Bunny was the only one of the 18 conscripted Toronto police horses to survive the war. Like most other war horses, he was sold to farmers in Belgium or France. His fate after that is not known. Tom returned home.
The book is aimed at readers aged six to eight. Publisher Kids Can Press offers an activity guide for teachers and parents.
As an adult reader, I was struck by how the details of history can slip away. The afterword reveals that there is no record of the name of the brother of Thomas Dundas. Some researchers question whether Bunny’s original rider was indeed a Dundas brother.
There is still a mounted police unit in the Toronto force. In 2006 they named one of their horses Dundas, in honour of Thomas Dundas. You can read more about Thomas and Bunny in this 2012 Toronto Star article.