War Horse Summary

Michael Morpurgo

War Horse

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War Horse Summary

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War Horse (1982), a children’s historical novel by British author Michael Morpurgo, follows the experiences of Joey, a horse bought by the Army for service as a military horse during World War I, and the efforts of his former master Albert to find him and bring him safely home, even as Albert, a young man, heads off to war as well. Exploring themes of war and its impact on both soldiers and civilians, the struggle to maintain hope and humanity in difficult situations, and the unique bond between man and animal, War Horse was both critically and commercially successful and was the runner-up for the Whitbread Book Award the year of its release. A sequel, Farm Boy, focusing on Albert’s grandson and filling in more details of Albert’s story during and after the war, was released in 1997. War Horse was adapted into a 2007 play using a life-sized horse puppet, which played both in London’s National Theater (where it won an Olivier Award) and on Broadway. In 2011, a film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg was released and was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture.

War Horse begins at a farm auction when a drunk named Ted Narracott buys a young horse for thirty-nine guineas, instead of the colt he was sent to buy. Although Ted quickly gets frustrated with the horse’s slow pace, his son Albert names the horse Joey and quickly becomes close to the horse. He protects Joey from Ted’s drunken rages, grooms and cares for him, and teaches him to work the fields. While living with the Narracotts, Joey becomes close to a horse named Zoey from a nearby farm. However, World War I is raging across Europe, and soon enough comes to Great Britain. One day, Ted, whose farm is struggling, sells Joey to the army before Albert can stop him. Albert tries to join the army to stay with his horse but is rejected because he is too young. He promises to find Joey when he can sign up. Joey is taken and trained for the army by Corporal Perkins and is eventually matched up with Captain James Nicholls as his first army rider. Joey leads a unit of mounted infantry, where he befriends Topthorn, a fellow horse ridden by James Stewart. However, on a charge against a German unit, Nicholls is killed. Stewart gives Joey to Trooper Warren, a nervous young man, who is a heavier ride but is very kind to Joey.

On another charge, Topthorn and Joey lead Stewart and Warren into enemy lines but are captured by the Germans. The Germans take the horses and put them to work pulling an ambulance cart for the hospital. The two horses become famous among the soldiers for saving many lives with their strength and speed. The Germans give Joey and Topthorn to an old man and his granddaughter Emilie, to care for them on their farm until they are needed for labor again. Emilie is very kind to the horses, tending to them the way Albert did to Joey, and Joey begins to love her in the same way. When the Germans move their hospital to another location, Emilie and her grandfather are allowed to keep the horses, and Joey finds himself a farm horse once again. He teaches Topthorn the needed skills. However, a group of German artillerymen led by a ruthless captain come by and confiscate the horses to pull their artillery wagon. Emilie is devastated. In their new job, the horses meet Friedrich, a kind and reluctant soldier who cares for them. Most members of the artillery team are killed in battles, and Joey and Topthorn are pushed to their limits. Topthorn dies of heart failure, and Friedrich is killed by Allied shells. Upon seeing a tank for the first time, Joey flees in a panic and is wounded by barbed wire. Both Allied and Central Power soldiers find him, and an Allied soldier wins possession of Joey in a coin toss. Before Joey is taken away, the two soldiers enjoy a few moments of peace and wonder if they could have been friends if not for the war.

Joey is cared for at the Allies’ veterinary hospital, where he is reunited with Albert, who volunteered for the army along with his friend David. Albert realizes Joey is his old horse when Joey responds to his whistle. Albert begins caring for Joey again. Near the end of the war, David, along with two horses, is killed by a stray shell; Albert becomes depressed at the loss of his friend. As the war ends, Major Martin makes plans to auction all off all the horses, despite the protests of his men. A man named Sergeant Thunder bids for Joey but loses to a butcher. However, at the last second, an old man wins with a large bid. He reveals he is Emilie’s grandfather, who has been looking for Joey since he was taken. The old man tells Albert all about Joey’s stay at his farm. Emilie lost the will to live after Joey and Topthorn were taken, and the sickly girl passed away at fifteen years old. Although he wanted to get the horse back to have something to remember her by, he decides to sell Joey to Albert for a cheap price in exchange for Albert telling people about Emilie. Albert takes Joey home to England, where they can finally live in peace.

Michael Morpurgo is an English author, poet, playwright, and librettist best known for his children’s books. He served as the third British Children’s Laureate from 2003 to 2005 and is the author of more than three hundred works in multiple formats and genres. War Horse remains his most iconic work. He has been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal four times and has been named a member of the Order of the British Empire and the Royal Society of Literature.