Sir Michael Morpurgo July 2019
Stories

War Horse Author Sir Michael Morpurgo: How Army Life Shaped My Writing

War Horse author, Sir Michael Morpurgo, talks about his brief time in the Army and how it inspired his writing

Sir Michael Morpurgo July 2019

Writer Sir Michael Morpurgo has never been far from the hardships and heartbreak war can bring - having spent time in the Army and growing up in a post-war England. 

The author of War Horse and countless other children's best-sellers, whose latest involvement with the military community has been championing the athletes taking part in the Invictus UK Trials in Sheffield, has told of his own experiences while serving in the Armed Forces and the influence this has had on his life and career.

Speaking to Forces Network, he said: 

“It was the best time of my life for making friends, it was the worst time of my life for people shouting at me,”

He said that he felt like it was a natural fit for him to sign up to the British Army, joining after finishing school.

He was awarded a two-year scholarship as an officer-cadet at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

However, he soon found that Army life was not for him with a decisive moment dawning on him while out was out on exercise in the winter of 1962.

“I remember being on lookout, looking out across this wasteland of snow coming down and thinking of the Christmas Truce in 1914.

"And I did think, 'Is this what I want to be doing, would we not be better doing what the German soldiers and the British soldiers did, getting up and shaking hands, maybe that’s what we should be doing?' … It was one of those moments where I thought again. It was also too cold to do again.”

He beat a retreat from Sandhurst after one year, informing his company commander of his decision.

 

Morpurgo then turned towards teaching, and to university, a first step in what would take him on to becoming the award-winning author he is today.

He now has more than 100 books to his name, including the most noticeably famous 'War Horse' and his newest book 'Boy Giant' which is out later on this year. 

Without his brief time at Sandhurst, the author feels he would not have been able to write in the empathetic and emotional way he has, and speak to former soldiers without developing an understanding of military life.

"I could never have talked to an old cavalry man from the First World War face to face and asked him about his experiences of war if I hadn't thought it through myself and put on a uniform."

His experiences have meant he has been able to write stories that have reached millions of children and adults a like.

Born in 1943, he grew up with a father in the military, and he told how he has always been surrounded by the effects of war.

It is his childhood memories that have stuck with him the most with his writing, including seeing former soldiers with injuries on the sides of pavements asking for money as he went to buy sweets. He said: 

"Here you were, you'd grown-up, played in bombsites, you realised that war did this to buildings, and suddenly you were learning, as a little boy, actually war does this to flesh." 

It was writing about the effects of war that propelled Morpurgo into the international spotlight with his emotive novel War Horse, perhaps his best-known work that has since spawned a blockbuster movie and a touring stage play.

The novel recounts the experiences of Joey, a horse purchased by the Army for service in First World War France, and the attempts of the horse’s previous owner Albert to bring the animal safety home.

The story came out of conversations with war veterans who drank in the author’s local pub in Iddesleigh in Devon.

It was those emotional stories and memories that were at the forefront of the writer's mind as he spoke in Sheffield as part of the 2019 Invictus UK Trials.

The Invictus Games were set up in 2014 by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, to help inspire recovery and support the rehabilitation of wounded, injured and sick service men and women. 

Talking about the mental strength of the athletes taking part at this year's trials, Morpurgo said:

"It's so extraordinary to find people who have the courage to go on and on."

 

The author told how his writing is a cathartic experience that helps him to leave his memories, but he is aware that not everyone is able to do that and he himself has not experienced injuries like those of the athletes in the Invictus Games, he said:

"I am an outsider looking on, hopefully looking on sensitively." 

Michael Morpurgo's latest book Boy Giant, an adventure inspired by the classic story of Gulliver's Travels, is due to be published in September.