War Horse author Sir Michael Morpurgo on his new book, Poppy Field

Why I proudly wear a red AND a white poppy, by Michael Morpurgo

Sir Michael Morpurgo stands by a war memorial in the remote Devon village where he lives, remembering the old soldier who inspired him to write War Horse.

‘For the first time in my life, I was talking to someone who had been there in the First World War. Wilf told me what it was like to lie in the bottom of a trench after being gassed and have a German soldier stand over you with his bayonet at your throat, but then not kill you. Extraordinary.’

Sir Michael Morpurgo’s new book Poppy Field is written in the voice of a modern-day schoolboy living on a farm in Flanders, where poppies grow wild

The encounter led to a compassionate story that shapes the way so many of us think about the war that ended 100 years ago today. War Horse has been a book, a Steven Spielberg film and a play with astonishing puppets at the National Theatre, to which it has just returned for a limited run.

This gentle, serious man in his chinos and checked shirt has flyaway hair but a fierce focus on what he is doing and why. The emotional connection he feels with those who took part in the First World War began when Morpurgo came to live in this tiny village of Iddesleigh with his wife Clare in 1974, and met a violin-playing, antique-dealing neighbour called Wilfred Ellis, with some vivid stories to tell. ‘Suddenly it wasn’t history, it was real life. This man had been involved.’

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Ellis had signed up as a teenager, was shot in 1918 and nearly died out in no-man’s-land until he was hauled up on to a cart that had come to collect the dead. ‘Wilf told me what people longed for in the trenches: to go home, to have a bath, to have hot food, just to not be wet. He told me lots of things. I owe him a lot.’

Ellis also introduced him to two other veterans in the village, one of whom had wrangled animals for the Army. ‘I found out that about a million horses had gone to the First World War and 65,000 had come back, which is roughly the same loss as the men who went. They died the same way.’

People assume a man who makes up stories for children must be a better dad than most. ‘Yes I know, and I can see why, but the notion that somehow a children’s author should make the most perfect parent in the world is nonsense,’ Morpurgo says now. Pictured, one of the illustrations from his new book

Wilfred Ellis passed away in 1981, a year before the publication of the story he had helped bring to life, War Horse. Joey the dray horse is taken off to serve the cavalry at the front, captured by the Germans and put to work on a French farm. His owner Albert is desperate to find him but gets caught up in the conflict, which we see from both sides through the eyes of the horse. ‘My stories are made up but I hope they help people who read them to feel and understand that those involved in this terrible war were each somebody’s son or daughter. Somebody real.’

Morpurgo returns to the theme in his new book, Poppy Field, written for the British Legion to mark today’s centenary and telling the story of a little girl growing up among the battles and wild poppies of Flanders.

‘They want the red poppy to be understood better by the younger generation, who have little or no connection to the First and Second World Wars,’ says the author, 75, who wears a white peace poppy as well as a red one on the breast of his tweed jacket. ‘The more personal you can make it, the better.’

Poppy Field is written in the voice of a modern-day schoolboy living on a farm in Flanders, where poppies grow wild. He is grieving for his father, blown up when his tractor ran over a long-hidden First World War bomb in one of the fields. On the wall of the farmhouse is a scrap of paper bearing the hand-written words of a famous poem by John McCrae: ‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow/between the crosses, row on row…’

In Morpurgo’s story, a little girl of eight – the narrator’s great-grandmother – sees the soldier poet trying to write a tribute to his dead friend but throwing away the pages. She picks one up and keeps it in a frame on the wall for many years without realising that the poem has become famous, the inspiration for people across the world taking up the poppy as a symbol of remembrance.

But if Morpurgo is such a champion of the British Legion Poppy Appeal, why is he also wearing the white poppy of the Peace Pledge Union? ‘It’s time to stop the way in which we have been thinking about war and start another way of thinking. This red poppy is for then and for them: it represents respect, honour and thanks to the people who ensured our freedom.’

But he then talks about his uncle Pieter, an actor who was killed in World War II aged 21. ‘He never got to have a life. He was just cut short. If men like him died for anything it was surely that there should be peace afterwards, for their families and their country. It is just as important to find a peaceful way forward and avoid war as it is to remember the men and women who died. The two things should go side by side. That’s why I wear a white poppy too.’

If the white poppy is a surprise, so is the fact that the book for which he is best known was a flop for 25 years before it became one of the defining stories about World War One. ‘We sold about a thousand copies a year after War Horse came out in 1982, no more than that,’ says Morpurgo, who got on with writing other stories. He won the 1996 Whitbread Children’s Book Award with The Wreck Of The Zanzibar and also served as Children’s Laureate, a post he helped to create. Then in 2007 the National Theatre asked to put on a production of War Horse with puppets, which the author nearly turned down. ‘I was afraid Joey would end up looking like a pantomime horse. Then I saw what they were proposing and realised it was wonderful.’

The Handspring Puppet Company created mesmerising animals operated by three people at a time, moving with the grace of real horses. They are currently performing War Horse at the National again until January. Next, Steven Spielberg made a movie of War Horse and involved Morpurgo fully, even giving him and Clare a brief appearance as countryfolk at a market. ‘If you blink, you miss it,’ said Morpurgo at the time. ‘Spielberg is fantastically organised, like the conductor of an orchestra.’

Tourists began to turn up in Iddesleigh asking to see the portrait of the horse, Joey, that the foreword to the book said was hanging in the village hall. Unfortunately, the author had made that bit up.

‘Our dear friend Joan Weeks, who lives next door to the hall, had to keep saying: “Oh dear, it fell off the wall a week ago, I’m sorry.” She didn’t want to reveal me as a liar, bless her, even though I’m a novelist, that’s what I do! Eventually she said: “Michael, it would be really helpful to me if somehow you could arrange for there to be a picture there!’”

The Morpurgos commissioned the War Horse film’s resident artist to paint a portrait of Joey in period style. It now hangs in the village hall alongside photographs of the real village school children in 1910 and 1911. Looking at their cheeky faces, I realise with a jolt that some will have lost their lives in the war. The names on the memorial outside are no fiction, they represent real grief. ‘Here we are,’ says Morpurgo, tracing the writing on the rough granite Celtic cross with his finger. ‘Seven people who went away from this tiny village and never came back. Some of those names are still in the village. The Ansteys are still here. But others just vanished completely.’

The author has lived in this place for over 40 years and cares for it deeply. Just down the road is War Horse Valley Farm, set up by friends as part of Farms For City Children, a charity the Morpurgos created a long time ago to enable inner-city kids to come and work alongside farmers and experience country life. ‘It isn’t pretend at all,’ says Morpurgo. ‘And it’s very good for their self-esteem to be working hard and sharing responsibilities with grown-ups who don’t patronise them.’

There’s also a big iron sign on the village green that declares this to be War Horse Country. I ask if he’s proud, but it turns out that Morpurgo is quite cross. ‘It’s strange. I wish people would ask before they do things like that, but very often they don’t.’

How did he feel about receiving a knighthood this year? ‘I wanted to call myself Sir Joey – it’s the horse that got the knighthood. It would be much more interesting for people to see a horse kneeling down and getting knighted by Prince William. He’d have enjoyed it much more than yet another man in a morning suit, which must be pretty boring!’

How was the ceremony? ‘I enjoyed having my family there. Other than that, I found it quite stiff. When you go to a school prize-giving, people clap. They even whoop. There are no whoops when you get a knighthood. Prince William was terrific but it was kind of quiet and silent, a bit like going to church.’

So, should I call him Sir Michael? He shakes his head. ‘Please don’t call me Sir unless you really want to make me cross. But I’m certainly not going to hand it back, because Sir Joey wouldn’t like me to!’

We’re getting along nicely but I’ve got a couple of tricky questions to ask now, because there have been stories in recent years about Morpurgo suffering throat cancer and also being estranged from his sons. He has two boys who are now in their 50s – Sebastian, a teacher and Horatio, a writer – as well as a daughter called Rosalind. So how is he doing? ‘My health is as perfect as my family,’ he says briskly. ‘The prognosis is really good. It’s cancer of the larynx and it was caught as early as you can hope for, so the chances of surviving are really rather good.’

A biography in 2012 quoted Morpurgo as saying he regretted spending too much time with the city children visiting his farm and not enough with his own sons, who were apparently refusing to speak to him at the time: ‘It is a difficulty but we all have our own sadness and I long for reconciliation.’

People assume a man who makes up stories for children must be a better dad than most. ‘Yes I know, and I can see why, but the notion that somehow a children’s author should make the most perfect parent in the world is nonsense,’ he says now. ‘We’re rather ordinary, imperfect humans and not necessarily any better at raising children than anyone else. I was far too young when I became a father.’

Clare was pregnant when they got married in a hurry, to the alarm of her father, the founder of Penguin Books. Both were in their early 20s. Morpurgo admits he was immature and distracted then, but the family reconciliation he longed for has taken place. ‘I’m a much better grandfather than I ever was a father; and I am a much better great-grandfather than I ever was a grandfather. What do you know as parents, for goodness’ sake? You’re feeling your way forward.’

Wilfred Ellis passed away in 1981, a year before the publication of the story he had helped bring to life, War Horse

Nobody has done more to help younger people develop a feeling for what happened in wartime. But as a writer, he believes we should change our language of remembrance. ‘We use extraordinary words for the dead, don’t we? Glorious, we use that a lot. I don’t think it would have appealed to them at all. It was a truly vile thing that happened, a waste of humanity. The flower of Europe died on the battlefield. An engineer from Germany killing an artist from England or a musician from France, for no other reason than that they were wearing a different colour uniform.’

Britain has changed. Why should children with roots in other countries even care? ‘If we do this right, it doesn’t have to be a white thing. One-and-a-half million Indians fought in the First World War. Everyone forgets about it. Jamaicans came over in large numbers as well. There were many people of colour who fought in the two world wars. So this is a question of universal suffering, not just about me because I’m pink and I’ve got a British name and because we won.’

The First World War ended with the humiliation of Germany but the Second led to a new peace in Europe that has been sustained by the EU, says Morpurgo. ‘The best way to avoid war is to trade, because then you need each other. This is what upsets me most about Brexit. Nobody has talked about the most important thing: peace.’

Not surprisingly, he is firmly in favour of the German president being invited to the Cenotaph today, despite the opposition of senior military figures like Lord Guthrie. ‘I think he should absolutely be there. I’m surprised he hasn’t been before. It’s really important we understand that yes, there were some vile people who fought in the Second World War for Germany but there were also teachers. There was the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker. I’m not going to point the finger at every single one of them. Certainly not now. And what they have done in that country, probably better than anyone else, is come to terms with the guilt and responsibility in their history. There is a lot to admire in that.’

War Horse is used in schools alongside Blackadder Goes Forth. But isn’t there something wrong with allowing made-up stories to define the way we remember real events? ‘I don’t think there’s any other way you can do it now,’ says Morpurgo gently. ‘Fiction is a way of putting children in touch with the human side of these stories. I think that’s very important.’

Wilf would surely approve. ‘The people who fought in the First World War have all gone now, 100 years on, but we need to keep the promise for our own sake as much as theirs: “We will remember them.”’ 

‘Poppy Field’ by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Michael Foreman, is out now, published by Scholastic, £12.99


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