Memoirs Of World War One Soldier Reveal Real Life War Horse Story
Durham Light Infantryman Corporal George Thompson worked with horses in the trenches, running supplies between the British lines.
For over 30 years War Horse has captured imaginations and hearts across the world be it on page, on stage or on screen.
Michael Morpurgo’s classic tale of Joey, a horse purchased by the Army for service in World War One France, and the boy who tries to bring him safely home, has sold more than 1m copies in print, made more than £115m at the cinema box office and hoovered up theatre awards across the globe.
But now the tale of the real life war horses is being brought to life thanks to a £475,000 Heritage Lottery Fund backed project that brings together Durham county record office, Durham County Council’s archaeology service, the DLI Museum and Durham Art Gallery.
Corporal George Thompson, from Sunderland, was a transport driver with 7th Battalion Durham Light Infantry during the Great War and used horses to deliver rations and supplies under enemy fire.
A decade after the war ended, George decided to write about his experiences and penned a lengthy memoir for his daughter.
And now – after a group of eight volunteers spent hours transcribing and checking them – the full transcript of his memories have been made available for download from the Durham at War website, which was launched a year ago this month to map the story of County Durham and its people during the conflict.
“It’s taken a lot of work to transcribe George’s memoirs but it’s such a worthwhile task,” said Gill Parkes, the principal archivist at Durham County Record Office.
“They offer a fascinating first-hand account of life on the frontline – you can almost hear the words tumbling onto the page as his memories come flooding back.
“While the memoirs provide a very useful resource for anyone studying the First World War they’re also a very engaging read in their own right – George was a brave but very modest man who clearly loved his horses.
“They can easily be read like a book and making them available online means they easily be downloaded onto a tablet or reading device to be read on the move.”
George lived on Crow Street, in Sunderland, and, like his father and grandfather, worked at the city’s Vaux Brewery.
He joined the Territorial Force in October 1910, shortly before his 17th birthday, and was eventually chosen as a transport driver. In 1914, motor vehicles were expensive and unsuited to travelling over muddy or rutted ground.
Instead, George and other drivers used a horse and cart to deliver supplies where they were most needed. As well as learning to drive heavy wagons, George was also able to ride bareback when required.
His 158-page memoirs cover his story from the day war was declared in August 1914 to the day in January 1919 when he was finally demobilised.
They include his recollections of caring for the horses in the extreme conditions of the battlefield.
“Many a time I used to feel sorry for them,” he said. “They used to stand out in all weathers, and sometimes up to their knees in mud. I can always say, while I had a pair of horses in France, I always did my duty to them.”
In a separate section, he wrote that: “At the time we were stationed at St Jean our horses never had their harnesses off. We got shelled all day long while we were at St Jean.
“After a few days we went further back, to a large field on the road side near to Ypres. Here our horses had their harnesses taken off for the first time. We gave them a good cleaning down and they looked a lot better.”
And of the difficulties of putting gas masks on the horses, he said: “I remember one night when we [were] going up with rations they gave us an order to put our gas masks on, and we had to put them on our horses. We had some game on with them.”
The memoirs also see George talk of the wider hardships and experiences of war.
“While we were at Mondement we were just sleeping anywhere we could, some under wagons and some under large trees,” he said.
“Some days we would [be] soaked through with the heavy rains. There you had to stick it, no big fires to dry your clothes, and no fine beds to lie in.”
“We retreated through towns full of people,” he added. “It was awful to see them taking with them as much as they could carry, and their little children crying over them; that touched me most.”
Although demobilised at the end of the war, George re-enlisted in 7DLI until June 1921 and gained his long service award. On leaving the army, George returned to work at Vaux Brewery, where he became a fermenting room foreman, until retiring in 1959.