The stage play War Horse, also a Steven Spielberg film, is the story of a horse from Wales 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 same war.
That horse, Morning Glory, was shipped to France from Brome County in Quebec’s Eastern Townships in 1915. Her owner was Lieutenant-Colonel George Harold Baker, known to friends and family as Harry.
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.
Baker commanded the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles. He and his men practiced charges and shooting from the saddle when they were on maneuvers 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 instead behind the lines and to haul equipment.
Canada sent about 130,000 horses overseas during World War One, 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 1918. As of July 1917 [the date for which there are accurate records], about 82,000 horses were shipped overseas — 42,000 to the British Army, 15,000 to the French and 25,000 to the Canadians,” said Harris.
Going separate ways
When Colonel Baker and his Mounted Rifles arrived in England they were re-classified as infantry and sent to the trenches. The men were separated from their horses, which were sent to France.
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.
Colonel 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. Harry Baker was killed around 8:30 p.m. on June 2, 1916, at Maple Copse in Sanctuary Wood during the Second 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, Colonel Baker reportedly moved along the trenches trying to keep the 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 McRae, the Canadian who wrote In Flanders Fields, manned the medical station nearby. He survived the battle, but was killed in another in 1918. Harry 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 Lieutenant-Colonel Harry Baker in the House of Commons in Ottawa, because the Member of Parliament for Brome was the only MP 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 Lieutenant-Colonel Baker, 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 adds that 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 says. "But we do know she was cared for on local farms after she came home."
What is known is that the horse never went to battle again, living 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."