Norfolk house that was a real-life haven for war horses

While movie moguls tug at royal heart-strings with the latest Hollywood blockbuster an old Norfolk coaching inn can claim a 'real' slice of the action.

War Horse, released this week, chronicles the plight of millions of horses whose efforts hauling heavy machinery across the churned wilderness of the first world war, bullets whistling past their ears, cost many their lives.

Today, almost 100 years since the guns fell silent, it is the sacrifice of horses, as well as men, that is being remembered.

And some of those animals, possibly requisitioned from Norfolk where in previous lives they calmly clip-clopped around villages delivering milk or pulling ploughs, found themselves recovering in the countryside at an old coaching inn turned horse hospital.

At The White House, in North Burlingham, the current owner carries on the caring legacy and has a permanent first aid kit on stand-by to tend to the many road casualties on the thundering A47 on her doorstep.

But publicity surrounding the new Steven Spielberg film has rekindled interest in the horses and mules who were the backbone of the army's logistic support on the battlefields of France and were once nursed back to health at her house.

That not all the patients recovered came into grisly focus when the stables were converted into a dwelling and builders digging up the drive found equine bones.

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But the only permanent reminder of the episode in her home's history is a grainy black and white photograph handed to Valerie Knights by a boy blacksmith who worked alongside his father shoeing the injured animals.

For Mrs Knights MBE, who has lived with her family on and off in the house since 1940, it is particularly fitting that her stables helped war horses because her father was a cavalryman and captain with the Royal Norfolk Regiment and experienced first-hand the close partnership between a man and his horse.

About 20 horses at a time could be cared for at The White House, then called Beighton House, most of whom were sent straight back to the front as soon as they were fit.

But the effect on Norfolk rural life was profound, she said. With so many horses taken from farms along with any hay that was available, working the land became very difficult and horses fetched a high price after the war ended because so many were taken and too few came back.

'They used to come and take the horses straight off the land and the owners got very little if anything for them.

'It was terrible what happened to them,' Mrs Knights said. 'They were blown to pieces. They had to get the hay over there and some of the boats were bombed and the horses drowned at sea.

'Having so many taken away was a real blow to local life. A foal is born but you cannot work it on a farm for two and a half to three years.'

Mrs Knights, who has worked the land all her life, said she was still ploughing with horses in the 1940s, as well as 'harrowing' and 'drilling' –which required two horses.

'There were more horses than cars,' she said. 'There were only three people in the village with cars and you had to have a permit to drive into Yarmouth.'

Although vast numbers of horses were used in the first world war, Mrs Knights did not know of any other horse hospitals locally.

She believed that although there was a surgery in Acle, the army bought their own vets and the people who looked after the animals did not stay in the house.

'It was called a hospital for sick horses,' she said.

'They were brought here from France to recover and be looked after. Still, one had to be put down and died and was buried in the meadow.'

Richard Dalton, of Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, near Dereham, said the impact in Norfolk must have been immense as so many horses were taken: 'Millions of horses were used so the infrastructure had to be in place to support the work they were required to do.

'Vets, farriers, harness makers, wheelwrights were all necessary to support the horse as well as the large numbers of soldiers who cared and worked with them.

'I was lucky enough some years ago to meet a lady visiting Gressenhall who had had direct experience of this.

'Her family farmed in north Norfolk and on returning home one day she walked into the farm yard and all the horses were gone as they had been taken.

'Even when I met her many years after the event she was still very emotional when she talked of this and she always had worried as to what had happened to them.'

Mrs Knights was made an MBE around 10 years ago for her work with Acle Voluntary Aid which she set up in 1978 after hearing about a similar organisation in Blickling.

The film War Horse, starring Emily Watson, Jeremy Irvine and Benedict Cumberbatch, is based on Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's novel War Horse about the touching partnership between one man and his horse and how they help each other through the horror of war. The Duchess of Cambridge was said to have shed a tear at this week's London premiere.

The people behind a new documentary for Channel Four want to hear from anyone whose families had horses requisitioned during the first world war and about the impact it had on their lives. Contact Devika Raman on 01179258589, email or write to War Horses Appeal, Testimony Films, 12 Great George Street, Bristol, BS1 5RH.

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