Friday, February 24, 2012

The Other War Horses

Fetysz Ox 

Recently, I saw Steven Spielberg's newest movie, War Horse. Based on a best-
selling children's novel and stage play, the WWI film focuses on the life of a
idealistic young Englishman and his horse, Joey. As expected, it serves up a
large dose of Speilberg sentimentality.

I loved it. Even cried, much to the surprise of friends who found the film sappy
and implausible.

I will admit my fondness for Spielberg's creation was clouded by my state of
mind --and heart-- several days before viewing the film. Deep in novel research,
I'd been listening to a recording made many years ago by Lucy, my father's
cousin. My grandfather and Lucy's mother  -- brother and sister -- grew up on
a farm in Kallehnen, East Prussia. The family bred horses for the Prussian

War horses, called Trakeheners.

As the film rolled, I recalled bits of Lucy's story, told in a halting voice with a
thick German accent.

"The family owned a particularly beautiful and valuable mare named Falla. She
was deeply loved by the whole family.  On his trips back from town, your
great-grandfather would nod off from having had too much to drink. Falla always
got him and the wagon home safely. But one day, Falla stumbled into a ditch and
broke her leg. She had to be shot. My mother said that is the only time she saw her
mother weep,"

My Grandfather's War Horses

Trakehnen stud farm with statue of the Trakehner stallion Tempelhuter

Like the horses portrayed in War Horse, East Prussia's Trakehners were raised
for farm work and for the military. Thousands of Trakehner horses died in battle during WWI. By war's end, the
population had been reduced by half.

In the years between WWI and WWII, breeding resumed at the main Traekehner stud farm in Trakehnen and on the farms of area Prussians, like my great-grandparents. Slowly, the population grew again.

At Trakehnen, dubbed the "City of Horses," the horses lived like royalty. During their free time, they frolicked in wide, open pastures. The most prized studs on the farm lived in elegant stables graced with chandeliers. In one of those stables lived a
striking white stallion named Fetysz Ox who fathered many of the finest Trakehner horses.

The Long Trek of 1945 

By January of 1945, the Russian Army had advanced into East Prussia. The exodus
of East Prussians is a cruel and barbaric story. Egged on by Stalin, the Russians were
eager to avenge German atrocities at Stalingrad. Sadly, the innocent paid the price,
including many beautiful Trakehner horses.

Together the people and horses tried to escape in the harsh January weather
across snow-covered fields and stretches of frozen sea. From above, the
Russians shot at them, breaking up the ice so the refugees and horses would
drown in the frigid water. On the ground, Russian tanks rolled over the
frightened people and horses. Starvation, illness, and the severe weather
claimed many more.

Reaching Trakehnen, the Russians razed the stud farm and took the bronze
horse statue in the photo above to Russia as booty. Fetsyz Ox, the prized white
Trakehner stallion, was shot by Russian soldiers.


The City of Horses stud farm no longer exits. Neither does East Prussia.
After the war much of it was given to Russia. German names were changed to
Russian names. The farm and village where my great-grandparents lived
suffered the same fate. After the war, the Prussians still living in East Prussia
were deported.

Only roughly 100 out of East Prussia's 18,000 Trakehner horses survived the
war in Germany.

I doubt this story of the war horse will ever make it to the big screen.

The Long Trek of January 1945 

To read more about the Trakehner horse go to:

1 comment:

tom s said...

I enjoyed the family story Laura. As the Russians were advancing in January of 1945 my father, who was a POW, was moved from Stalg Luft III to Moosburg. This period in the war was harsh for many people. Thanks for sharing.