The novel and stage play War Horse, also a Steven Spielberg film, is the story of a horse from Devon that goes to France during the First World War. There is an equally moving but little known true story about a Canadian horse and her rider who took part in the "war to end all wars."
That horse, Morning Glory, was shipped to France from Brome County in Quebec’s Eastern Townships in 1915. Her owner was Lt.-Col. George Harold Baker, known to friends and family as Harry.
Baker was a lawyer in the small town of Sweetsburg (now part of Cowansville, Que.) and Montreal. He was also the member of Parliament for Brome, and a part-time soldier in the equivalent of what today would be called the reserves.
By the end of the World War One, Canada had provided well over 10 per cent of the horses used on Europe's Western Front. Every year at least a quarter of them were killed in battle.
Baker commanded the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles. He and his men practised charges and shooting from the saddle when they were on manoeuvres in Canada, mostly on parade grounds and playing fields near Sherbrooke, Que.
At the age of 38 he could easily have stayed home or worked behind the lines, but Baker volunteered to go overseas. When he went to France in 1915 he took Morning Glory with him.
Horses on the battlefield
Unfortunately, there was little glory for the millions of warhorses in the First World War.
There were few cavalry charges on the Western Front — the machine gun changed the way wars were fought, and the rapid fire kept men pinned down in trenches. Mounted soldiers couldn't charge machine guns, so horses were used behind the lines and to haul equipment.
Canada sent about 130,000 horses overseas during the First World War, according to Steve Harris, chief historian of the directorate of history and heritage at the Department of National Defence.
By the end of the war, Canada had provided well over 10 per cent of the horses used on Western Front. Every year at least a quarter of them were killed in battle.
"Eight thousand horses went overseas with the first contingent of Canadians in the fall of 1914. As of July 1917, about 82,000 horses [had been] shipped overseas — 42,000 to the British Army, 15,000 to the French and 25,000 to the Canadians," Harris said.
Going separate ways
When Baker and his Mounted Rifles arrived in England they were reclassified as infantry and sent to the trenches. The men were separated from their horses, which were sent to France.
Harry Baker’s letters survive, and are reproduced in the book A Canadian Soldier, George Harold Baker M.P. that his friends wrote about him.
In May, 1916, he was planning a leave in London to meet his sisters who were coming over from Canada. He even had the hotel room booked where he was going to stay. He talked about it in one of the many letters he wrote to the relatives of dead soldiers who served under his command.
"If things go well I shall be in London about June 4th and if you are then within reach I will go to see you and perhaps I can answer some questions you would like to have answered," Baker wrote in a letter to a Mrs. Pilcher, the wife of a British soldier who had been killed while fighting with the Canadians.
"My address will be Hotel Cecil for the first few days of my stay there. I have tried to tell you everything. With renewed assurances of deepest sympathy shared by the whole Battalion, I remain, Sincerely yours, G.H. Baker."
That letter was written near Ypres, Belgium on May 29, 1916. It would be the last letter he wrote. Baker was killed four days later.
Morning Glory was lucky, avoiding the fate of so many of the other horses, such as dragging guns under fire through the mud. She caught the eye of a battalion commander who took her for his personal mount.
Baker was separated from Morning Glory, but he saw his horse from time to time. He mentioned her in a letter home from Belgium dated May 5, 1916.
"I saw Morning Glory day before yesterday; she is in the pink of condition. I hope some day to have her back." It was to be his last visit with her. Baker was killed around 8:30 p.m. on June 2, 1916, at Maple Copse in Sanctuary Wood during the battle of Ypres.
German artillery started shelling the Canadian trenches around eight that morning. It continued non-stop for more than 12 hours. A slight man of about five foot eight, Baker reportedly moved along the trenches trying to keep his soldiers calm.
"Colonel Baker had just fallen mortally wounded while walking up and down behind a new trench his men were digging under heavy fire and encouraging them by his coolness and example," wrote Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) in his book, Canada in Flanders.
The man who went to war thinking he would be leading the charge on his horse died instead in the mud in Flanders under unrelenting shellfire.
Lt.-Col. John McCrae, the Canadian doctor who wrote In Flanders Fields, manned the medical station nearby. He survived the battle, but died of influenza in 1918. Baker was one of the many men whose deaths inspired the poem every Canadian knows, and he is buried in a military cemetery in Flanders.
There is a statue to Baker in the House of Commons in Ottawa, because the MP for Brome was the only member killed in action in the First World War of the more than 50 MPs and senators who enlisted.
Return of the war horse
Morning Glory came home to Canada in 1918 at the end of war, even though it was unusual for a horse to be shipped back from overseas. General Dennis Draper, a friend of Baker's, brought Morning Glory back to Quebec. "The horse never went into battle, which is why he came back to Canada," says Arlene Royea, managing director of the Brome County Historical Society, which operates a museum in Knowlton, Que.
Morning Glory initially lived on Draper's farm at Sutton Junction in Brome county.
"General Draper made sure Morning Glory came back," said Arlene Royea. "Eventually she was with Bill Coughtry, who used her on his mail route to give her a bit of exercise."
She added there is little other information about Morning Glory in local historical records.
"We don't know as much as we would like to about the horse— we cared more about the men at the time," Royea said. "But we do know she was cared for on local farms after she came home."
What is known is that the horse lived out the rest of her life peacefully in Quebec.
Morning Glory is buried behind Glenmere, the house at the family’s summer home at Baker Pond, where a large bronze plaque is attached to a rock on a hill. The inscription is blackened in places and hard to read: "Here lies Morning Glory, a faithful charger who served overseas 1915-1918. Died 1936 aged 26 years."
An earlier version of this story contained several factual errors. Lt. Col. John Alexander McCrae, MD, wrote the poem In Flanders Fields; he was not killed in battle but died of pneumonia in 1918; the first contingent of Canadian troops arrived in France in 1914.Nov 10, 2012 8:50 AM ET