This series of paintings of the Great War by David Dent was inspired by the movie ‘War Horse’’ the stories of his grandparents; and the paintings of NZ war artist Septimus Power.
This one depicts allied pack horses carrying shells to the front. British soldiers were known as 'Tommies' but this could in fact depict any allied soldiers.
The grey-pink mud and fog shrouded dusk sky are illuminated by distant shelling as two pack horses struggle in the mud taking shells to the front. The ‘Tommies’ do all they can to help their equine comrades and finally they begin to climb out. The exertion is clear in the fine detail of sweat, steam and breath of the horses; and while this is captured in understated detail; the ruined buildings and tank traps are just hinted at abstractly with David’s typical deft handling of watercolour to create a vivid atmosphere.
David and Adrian were brought up on their maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather’s stories of World War One. She served for a while only to be court martialled after going AWOL so she could see her brother being presented with the DSM for outstanding valour in wiping out a German machine gun post. Hearing of her plight; her brother told the authorities she was only in fact 15 years old and had lied about her age. Another brother served in the Black Watch; ("Die Damen aus der Hölle"). Their grandfather was taken prisoner on the western front by the Germans after receiving a dreadful shrapnel wound; and German field medics performed wonders to save his leg; though he always walked with a severe limp. Both told the tragic stories of the many that never returned and of the gallant horses who gave their all.
With these veterans now all but gone; it is important that the generations that will never have had the honour of meeting them are told their stories by those that did. The Great War was the most tragic loss of life of all wars; because the quarrel was over little; and the new weaponry meant both sides embroiled in a trench quagmire; and the cavalry charges of old rendered futile by heavy machine guns. Horses suffered terribly; though they remained as mainstay of transport of weaponry, supplies and men even in WWII.
Royal Artillery officers recalled one horse who had a lucky escape from the horrors of the front; but it demonstrates how close some of the bonds formed with humans and animals in the war were:
"At Southampton, we lost our dear Sailor, our prize horse, who caught the veterinary officer's eye, who insisted he was too old, too thin and unfit for service. He didn't know. [Old Sailor] would work 24 hours a day without winking, and he was as quiet as a lamb and as clever as a thoroughbred, but he looked like nothing on earth, so we lost him, and the whole battery kissed him goodbye and the drivers and the gunners, who fed him, nearly cried."
Let us never forget those who gave their lives on both sides; human and equine.
Original watercolour D M Dent