As horses are a traditional symbol of freedom, Robert Ross’s exposure to their captivity and mistreatment as military animals parallels his gradual loss of innocence throughout the novel and highlights World War I’s devaluation of both human and animal lives. Before shipping off to Europe, Robert is assigned to a detail that breaks wild mustangs. During this time, he witnesses Captain Taffler and the Swede sexually role-playing as a horse and a rider at Wet Goods brothel, a sight that perverts Robert’s innocent association with horses and one of many instances that tarnish his moral and sexual innocence while at war. Another incident occurs on the ship journey to England, when Robert takes over Harris’s duty of overseeing the horses on board. The animals are kept in filthy, cramped conditions on the ship, causing one of them to break its leg. Both Robert and Regis the picket are deeply disturbed when Robert is forced to shoot this horse in order to end its suffering, highlighting the injustice of forcing horses to be military animals, as the horse would not have been needlessly injured or killed this way in the wild. And, much like Mrs. Ross’s killing of Rowena’s pet rabbits, Robert’s shooting of this horse further distances him from his childhood naiveté.
Just as Rodwell is traumatized and driven to suicide when he is forced to watch soldiers torturing small animals, Robert feels pushed to commit drastic measures as he witnesses the army’s ongoing cruel treatment of military horses. During the war, as soldiers sink into the mud and drown to death in the trenches, their horses die along with them. Robert is horrified by the senselessness of forcing these inherently nonviolent creatures into the brutality of a manmade conflict, believing that “If an animal had done this—we would call it mad and shoot it.” When Captain Leather refuses to let Robert free their company’s horses and mules from shellfire, Robert takes justice into his own hands by disobeying orders, killing Leather, and committing a series of war crimes in attempts to free these animals from their fate of being burned alive. The suffering and painful deaths that horses are forced to endure as military animals demonstrate the inhumane reality of dragging animals into manmade conflicts in which they have no understanding or stake. Their mistreatment is a symbolic representation of the war’s trivialization of life, a reality which spurs Robert’s loss of innocence as he becomes disillusioned and maddened by the violence and moral corruption around him.
Horses Quotes in The Wars
The mud. There are no good similes. Mud must be a Flemish word. Mud was invented here. Mudland might have been its name. When it rains…the water rises at you out of the ground. It rises from your footprints—and an army marching over a field can cause a flood. In 1916, it was said that you “waded to the front.” Men and horses sank from sight. They drowned in mud. Their graves, it seemed, just dug themselves and pulled them down.
He got out the Webley, meaning to shoot the animals not yet dead, but he paused for the barest moment looking at the whole scene laid out before him and his anger rose to such a pitch that he feared he was going to go over into madness. He stood where the gate had been and he thought: “If an animal had done this—we would call it mad and shoot it,” and at that precise moment Captain Leather rose to his knees and began to struggle to his feet. Robert shot him between the eyes.
Robert called out very distinctly (and there are twenty witnesses to this): “We shall not be taken.”
It was the “we” that doomed him. To Mickle, it signified that Robert had an accomplice. Maybe more than one. Mickle thought he knew how to get “them” out.