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A stirring tale of horsepower

STEPHEN Spielberg's film War Horse, a story of one boy and his nag at the Western Front, has been criticised for its sticky sentimentality. But as the excellent War Horse: The Real Story revealed, there was no shortage of sentimental attachments between man and beast during the Great War.

The most famous of all is undoubtedly that between General 'Galloping Jack' Seely and his thoroughbred steed Warrior. Warrior became a legend on the battlefield and a beloved mascot to cavalry soldiers. Since enlisted men couldn't very well clap a general on the back when they saw him, they instead hailed Warrior, patting and stroking his flanks as he passed by.

"They said the bullet hadn't been made that could kill him," said Seely's grandson Brough Scott, the racing broadcaster and former jockey. They were right, too.

Horse and rider made it through the war unscathed, Warrior living to the ripe old age of 33. Their finest hour came in 1918, at the Battle of Moreuil Wood near the Arve River in France, where Seely and Warrior -- as ever, chomping at the bit and raring to go -- led several regiments in the last great cavalry charge in history.

Vicious hand-to-hand combat ensued (the cavalryman's weapon of choice was a brutally effective, state-of-the-art straight-blade sword that could run an enemy through) and casualties were heavy, but the German push into France was comprehensively turned back, altering the course of the war.

Seely, of course, was born and bred around horses, yet the majority of young men who joined the cavalry -- naively believing it to be more glamorous than the infantry -- were working-class city boys who'd never seen a horse up close, let alone ridden one.

In an archive interview from 2005, former cavalry soldier Smiler Marshall recalled the learning process was simple: you got up on the horse, fell off and got back on again until you got it right.

There were still more horses than cars on the roads of Britain in 1914, but many of them disappeared as the British Army, short of horsepower, plundered farms and villages. In one two-week period alone, 140,000 horses were roped into service.

Len Whitehead, interviewed in 2004, lived on a farm with four horses, including two beautiful Shires. The army took three of them. "They meant a lot to us, those horses," he said. "Boxer, Duke and Violet were their names. We never saw them again, of course."

For man and horse, war was a brutal learning curve.

Cavalry regiments were cut to shreds when they rode straight into German machine guns at the Battle of the Somme, but shrapnel wounds, flying nails, caltrops (four-pointed, razor-sharp metal objects strewn across the ground by the enemy), disease and mange could also be fatal.

Sadly, for most of the horses that made it through the war, there was no land fit for equine heroes.

The British Army could only afford to maintain 26,000 horses, meaning that 85,000 were slaughtered for meat to feed starving French people and German prisoners of war.

Prince's Purple Rain, George Harrison's Something, Smokey Robinson's The Tracks of My Tears -- not the kind of song choices we've come to expect from the average TV singing competition. Then again, The Voice of Ireland, which reached the first live show last night, is turning out not to be the average singing competition.

For one thing, the standard of vocal talent is surprisingly high -- which makes you wonder what all the talent was doing during The All-Ireland Talent Show. For another, there's a refreshing lack of Cowellian nastiness from the judges.

A talent show for people that don't like talent shows, then. Let's just the public vote doesn't succumb to tribalism and muck it all up.

war horse: the real story HHHHH the voice of ireland HHHII