“Joe was right there in the trench with me,” said Harry Smith. “It was cold and wet. He was called up the same time as me. We were talking. Dunno what about. Nothing much except wanting this war over. Then we were hit by shell fire. We all ducked. I called him, checking he was OK. But all that was left of Joe was his head stuck on the end of his spine that had drilled into the muck.”
Harry was a family friend. Short, light, agile, he had energy and charisma that belied his 60 plus years when I knew him as a 10-year-old growing up in Stanmore village just north of London, U.K. Serving in the cavalry in World War 1 was his only experience abroad.
Joe’s demise haunted Harry. He never understood how he had survived unscathed when Joe’s fate had been so totally brutal. They had crouched just feet apart from each other when the shell hit.
So many brave men went to their deaths in the appalling conditions of the trenches. It was nothing short of slaughter. Ten per cent of all the fighting soldiers died in those dugouts.
Medical services were primitive; antibiotics hadn’t been discovered yet. If it wasn’t the initial blast that killed them, they died of infection, disease or exhaustion. If they survived, thousands suffered debilitating shell shock, a condition little understood at the time.
Trauma from prolonged bombardment, shell fire, and the constant sight, sound, and smell of agonizing death became an emotional, mental, and paralyzing overload that today we’d recognize as post- traumatic stress disorder.
Once back home, Stanmore wasn’t a complete haven from war for Harry. During World War 11 the village had an outstation for the Bletchley Park code-breaking facility where bombes were used to decode German Enigma messages. The bombes were electro-mechanical machines used to test for possible Enigma rotor settings found by Bletchley Park’s cryptographers. The village was also home to RAF Bentley Priory where the Battle of Britain was controlled.
A century on, the trauma Harry had endured repeats itself with crippling PTSD plaguing Canadian and American veterans returning from Afghanistan. But some of them are finding help through the healing powers of horses.
Renowned horse trainer and whisperer Monty Roberts runs California-based Flag Is Up Farms where he pairs traumatized soldiers with rescued abused horses. The program is based on a two-way street of trust since both the horses and the veterans have profound trust issues.
In a Department of Defense press release, veteran Alicia Watkins explained how she had isolated herself from friends and family and lost everything after she returned from tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. She was homeless and living in her car for a year.
“I know what it’s like to get to the point where you no longer want to live,” she said. “I remember going on convoys and not being able to handle it.”
By the time she returned home in 2007, she’d had many near-death experiences. Then she accepted an invitation to attend Roberts’ program. Roberts worked with Watkins to help her earn the trust of a horse after he saw room for extreme change in her.
“Hearing him talk about training the horses, I realized how horses and my PTSD were the same,” Watkins said.
Finally, she was able to relate to the horses’ “flight mentality,” because that’s what she saw in herself.
Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War and the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War 11. Spanning a century of conflict, Harry’s story and Alicia’s story of trauma are hauntingly similar.