It's 1914. The war effort rages forth as allies from all over the commonwealth pour into Belgium to help stop the German progress. Almost overnight, horses and men are drafted into the forces. Old artillery is dusted off and put back into service. Propaganda abounds as Lord Kitchener's poster points to everyone...
"Your country needs you!"
From the estate of Haigh, on the outskirts of the mining town of Wigan, a young girl is feeling the effects of the war as, one-by-one, her 3 uncles are conscripted and the family horses are taken into the cavalry. Her beloved pony Betty has survived the first round of the drafts, but one can only imagine the sleepless nights that she had worrying about her pony being taken away. Whilst retaining a strong sense of patriotism, Freda Hewlett of Haigh, Wigan, took matters into her own hands and, in a heart-felt letter, wrote to the Secretary of State, Lord Kitchener himself, asking that Betty be spared....
"Please spare her! Daddy says she is going to be a mother early next year and is 17 years old - it would break our hearts to let her go - We have given two others and three of our family are now fighting for you in the Navy. Mother and all will do anything for you but do do please let us keep old Betty. Your troubled little Britishers, P.L. and Freda Hewlett.”
(See letter fragments throughout the painting)
The War Office responded promptly sending Freda and P.L. a letter explaining that no horse under 15 hands would be enlisted for the cavalry and that Betty would be spared. Both letters went on display as part of the Once Upon A Wartime exhibition at the Imperial War Museum North that unearthed the true stories behind "War Horse", both the play and the movie.
Why I am so inspired by this story....
I grew up riding ponies around Haigh. Even though I did not have a pony of my own back then, I used to ride a fantastic 12.2 hand pony in shows and point-to-points called "Just Fred" for a local farmer. I have trotted along every bridle path, galloped across the fields, jumped the ditches, and have no doubt ridden in the very footsteps of Betty, Freda and P.L.
My own grandfather on my father's side served in the army at Ypres, was wounded, and sent back a second time. He was one of the first people to ever be the victim of chemical warfare and his service was finally ended when he succumbed to mustard gas at Ypres. He died young, no doubt as a result of his damaged lungs.
(We took a trip to Bruges and a day tour of Ypres - If you've ever wondered what World War I was like, you should go. They still feel its effects on the Flanders Fields... So touching.)
As if these coincidences were not enough... I absolutely love Haigh and know its grounds like the back of my hand. We have ancestors that were born on the estate. Furthermore, Haigh and Wigan is my home away from home and when I am in the UK, Haigh Country Park is where you'll find me, painting, drawing or strolling by the banks of the Leeds Liverpool canal.... Yes indeed....This story "hit home".
Since I found the letter, (following a serendipitous search for Haigh mining ponies on the internet), I love to paint Feda, P.L. and Little Betty... I have started a new series, with some examples herewith. Each painting evokes a different thought: The first made me think of that infernal time, the war at Freda's doorstep, while my own grandfather was in the trenches. Thereafter lighter themes came to mind; memories of Fred and I and happy times at Haigh; How children love ponies; Was P.L. worried that he would be drafted if the war continued? I hope you enjoy them as much as I'm enjoying painting them.