Moving story of Sunderland’s real-life War Horse hero

George Thompson, centre back with his horse, and fellow DLI Pioneers on the Marne, France, July 1918.

George Thompson, centre back with his horse, and fellow DLI Pioneers on the Marne, France, July 1918.

0
Have your say

The fascinating memoirs of Sunderland’s own War Horse hero have been published in full on the internet for the first time.

 Sergeant George Thompson repeatedly risked his life to deliver vital provisions to the battlefields of World War One under enemy fire.

Sunderland members of the Durham Light Infantry pictured during World War One - it is possible George was among them.

Sunderland members of the Durham Light Infantry pictured during World War One - it is possible George was among them.

 Amid the horror of shells and sniper fire, however, he had one trusty companion – the kicking, biting and loyal war horse he defied orders to save.

 A decade after the war ended, George – who served as a transport driver with 7th Battalion DLI – penned a lengthy memoir for his daughter.

 Now the full transcript can be downloaded at www.durhamatwar.org.uk – an interactive website mapping the story of County Durham and its people during the war.

 “It’s taken a lot of work to transcribe George’s memoirs, but it’s such a worthwhile task,” said Gill Parkes, principal archivist at Durham County Record Office.

Many a time I used to feel sorry for the horses. They used to stand out in all weathers, sometimes up to their knees in mud. I can always say, I always did my duty to them.

George Thompson, a DLI soldier in World War One.

 “They offer a fascinating first-hand account of life on the frontline – you can almost hear the words tumbling onto the page as his memories come flooding back.”

 George, son of Vaux worker Edward Thompson and his wife Elizabeth, was born in Clanny Street in 1893 and grew up in Crow Street – where The Bridges shopping centre now stands.

 The teenager followed in his father’s, and grandfather’s, footsteps to start work at Vaux after leaving school and, in 1910, he joined the Territorial Force as a part-time soldier.

 Military motor vehicles were still in their infancy when war broke out four years later, and it was to horses – almost 600,000 of them – that the army turned to for vital transport work.

George Thompson's daughter, Gracie, taken in 1947

George Thompson's daughter, Gracie, taken in 1947

 George was supplied with his horse by a local man, who claimed it was quiet, a good worker and would take care of him. Initially, however, it proved “rank bad” – according to George’s diary.

 “Nearly every time I took him for a drink I used to get into trouble,” George recalled. “He used to kick and bite and bolt away. I was soon fed up with him.”

 Despite the teething troubles, George and his horse – whose name is unknown – underwent intensive training before being sent to France in 1915 to transport supplies to the frontlines.

 And, when harness use and wet weather took its toll on the animal during the Battle of the Somme, George defied orders to kill him – secretly nursing the horse back to health instead.

 “Many a time I used to feel sorry for the horses. They used to stand out in all weathers, sometimes up to their knees in mud. I can always say, I always did my duty to them,” he wrote in his memoirs.

 “An officer came up one morning and ordered 15 horses to go down the line (to be shot) and one of those was the horse I brought from England.

 “Instead of sending him away, we sent another in his place and built a stable for him – and looked after him ourselves.” Just one month later, the horse was back in action.

 George went on to serve throughout the war with his faithful stead. He was twice mentioned in despatches, and also awarded the Military Medal for saving the lives of comrades under heavy fire.

 “While we were at Mondement we were just sleeping anywhere we could, some under wagons and some under large trees,” he later recalled.

“Some days we would (be) soaked through with the heavy rains. There you had to stick it, no big fires to dry your clothes, and no fine beds to lie in.

 “We retreated through towns full of people. It was awful to see them taking with them as much as they could carry, and their little children crying over them; that touched me most.”

 George’s 158-page memoirs cover his story from the day war was declared in August 1914 to the day in January 1919 when he was finally demobilised.

 “While they provide a very useful resource for studying WWI, they’re also a very engaging read – George was a brave but very modest man who clearly loved his horses,” said Gill.

“They can easily be read like a book, and making them available online means they easily be downloaded onto a tablet or reading device to be read on the move.”

l George re-enlisted in 7/DLI after the war, serving until June 1921. He then returned to work at Vaux, where he became a fermenting room foreman.