Soldier of the Horse

By Robert W. Mackay, c2011, Touchwood Editions

Robert Mackay’s first novel is a fast-paced, gripping account of one soldier’s experience during WWI, based partially on his own father’s recollections of serving in the Canadian Cavalry.

Mackay creates a sympathetic hero in Tom Macrae, articling student who suddenly finds himself in trouble with the law. Tom takes the offer of a stint in the army rather than go to jail and is shipped off to Europe to serve in Lord Strathcona’s Horse. The muddy trenches of France are a far cry from his Winnipeg home, but Tom proves his mettle in his new circumstances and rises up the ranks to become lance-corporal, corporal, and eventually troop sergeant, before his time is up.

Mackay’s depiction of the war is vivid and gritty. When Tom rides into battle, stabbing with his bayonet, we can almost feel the resistance going in, then the arm swinging back as he removes the blade. We feel sick with dread as a troop scouts ahead of the front line into No Man’s Land, far from protection, open to bullets and grenades. The rain is cold, the mud stinks, it is always wet and dark and everyone is afraid. Such tenuous circumstances result in fierce bonds of trust and loyalty. These young men depend on each other for their lives every day. They also rely on their horses and their bond with them is complex, combining love, dependence, responsibility and protection. In one horrific scene, Tom and another soldier rescue a companion after his horse is shot and the soldier is thrown, exposed to the enemy. But the horse is not dead and the young soldier will not leave his horse to die slowly. As it screams in anguish, the soldier makes his way back to finish the job. Tom understands:

He could not bear the suffering of the horses, creatures that only did the bidding of men. Innocent, somehow. He had seen horses gutted, legs blown off, blinded, shot, even gassed, and he knew he would live with their screams for the rest of his life. (p. 154)

Mackay does not glamorize war. It is ugly, dirty and terrifying. The soldiers endure things that no one can without harm. Those who make it home are scarred, and are haunted by unwelcome memories. After the war, Tom attends a talk by his former general at The Empire Club in Winnipeg. As General Seeley starts to relate his “very thrilling story—the story of your Canadian Cavalry,” Tom cannot stop the images that assault him and he is forced to leave:

…he saw, once again, Flowerdew tumble from his saddle…he was alone on galloping Toby…blood spattering from his flayed legs…Horses screamed and men moaned for their mothers and Planck bled out on the ground. René Carbonnier…died in Tom’s arms…Tom shuddered and left the hall, the general’s cultured tones fading. (p. 230)

His view of the war is not a “thrilling story” to be shared with others. It is personal and nightmarish, and he can’t even talk about it with his wife. When she reads from the newspaper about General Seeley’s speech, “He’s talking about the big picture,” said Tom. “All I know is it was a bloody mess from where I saw it.” (p.231)

But in the midst of the “bloody mess” and the brutality, Mackay shows us a story of humanity, loyalty, love and honour. Tom and his men are not fighting for glory or recognition. They simply want to survive and be allowed to return home to their families, marry their sweethearts, and live as normal a life as possible after the war. They test their courage every day, and despite their terror and against all odds, try to do what is right and necessary. Their actions are proof of their honour.

As most of the veterans from WWI have now passed away, Mackay’s book is a commemoration to them and other soldiers, and in particular to his own father. At least 15,000,000 soldiers and civilians were killed and another 20,000,000 were wounded in that Great War. Incomprehensible to think of those numbers and their long-lasting and far-reaching effects. Mackay shows us one tiny picture of the war through the eyes of a common soldier and reminds us what a precious thing it is to be able to lead an ordinary life.

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