Morris Gleitzman is a prolific Australian children’s author, who has penned such classics as Two Weeks With The Queen, Toad Rage, the Once/Then/After/Now quartet, and a whole lot more. While most of his books are strictly tongue-in-cheek fun, others (like the quartet mentioned above) provide younger readers with a fictional story based on references to real-life events (such as the Holocaust). Gleitzman’s latest offering, Loyal Creatures, also uses historical events as a basis for the plotline, but this time, the focus is on the Australian Light Horse regiment of World War One.
While writing a workshop script of War Horse for his friend- fellow author and creator of War Horse, Michael Morpurgo- Gleitzman learnt about the history of the Australian Light Horse, and the role that they played in the desert campaigns of Egypt and Palestine. Fascinated by the dedication and loyalty of the soldiers and their horses, he was inspired to expand his script, ending up with the novel Loyal Creatures.
The story follows a young boy named Frank, who, only sixteen, lies about his age and joins up with the Australian Forces. Along with his dad, and his beloved and flighty horse Daisy, Frank heads overseas, seeking adventure and the chance to win the heart of local girl Joan. While the first part of their deployment in Egypt is spent doing little fighting, Frank is able to make himself useful by locating much-needed water in the arid desert as part of the water deployment team. Mostly uneducated, having left school early to work with his father, Frank is well-skilled at water-boring and becomes a strong addition to the team. But he longs to fight against the ‘Huns and the Turks’ and, when tragedy strikes, he is even more determined to do so. With newfound friends and fellow soldiers- clever Otton, and friendly Lesney and Bosworth- by his side, Frank has to deal with strict Army regulations and the unexpected horrors of war. Throughout it all, his loyal Waler steed Daisy remains by his side, keeping him warm at night and providing constant emotional support. But with the end of the war comes the unimaginable- the loyal creatures who have worked so hard, and have done so much to make the soldiers victorious are facing their own battle. Now known as military equipment, rather than animals, the horses of the Australian Light Horse are in danger of being sold or ‘disposed of’, rather than accompanying their owners back home. Frank has to do everything in his power to save Daisy and get them both home to Australia…
Unfortunately the circumstances towards the end of the novel are based on real-life events- rather than spend thousands of dollars and several months in quarantine, many in the military believed it was better to sell their undamaged horses to other countries such as India or Britain. Injured horses were shot, and their hides, tails and manes were sold to local traders. These wartime animal heroes were treated for their loyalty in the most inconceivable way possible, and their riders and former owners were powerless to do anything.
Gleitzman’s portrayal of unequivocally Aussie boy Frank, his relationship with his horse and the horrors of war is both realistic and heartbreaking. Young readers interested in war stories and animals, or who enjoyed Morpurgo’s War Horse, will appreciate this novel.