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The REAL war horse heroes and the great-granddaughter who unwittingly landed a role in Spielberg's blockbuster movie

With its scattering of stone and thatched cottages set around a green, and  with a pub and church at its heart, Iddesleigh seems the archetypal English village. But although it is picturesque, it is often overlooked by the holidaymakers heading to the nearby craggy tors of Dartmoor and the sandy beaches of North Devon.
Apart from the handful of names proudly displayed on its war memorial, Iddesleigh seems untouched by the passing of time. But the memorial gives a clue to this small village’s importance. This is where author Michael Morpurgo painstakingly collated the experiences that would go to make up his novel War Horse.
The book has since become an award-winning play and it has now been transformed into a Hollywood blockbuster by director Steven Spielberg. Released in the US last week to critical acclaim, the film arrives here early in the New Year.
Hero: Jeremy Irvine as Albert and his horse Joey in a scene from the Walt Disney film War Horse
Hero: Jeremy Irvine as Albert and his horse Joey in a scene from the Walt Disney film War Horse
But who were the people from this sleepy Devon village that inspired an entertainment juggernaut, the people whose stories have now been seen by more than a million theatregoers and will soon be seen by millions more on the big screen?
In the foreword to War Horse, first published in 1982, Morpurgo credits three men: ‘Albert Weeks, the late Wilfrid Ellis and the late Captain Budgett – all three octagenarians in the parish of Iddesleigh.’
Weeks and Ellis, who lived next door to one another, now both lie buried, just yards apart, in the churchyard of 15th Century St James’s in the village, while Budgett died not far away in Exeter.
Morpurgo met and talked to all three while they were living in Iddesleigh and, through their stories, created the tale of Joey – the Devon farm horse sold to the British Cavalry and taken to  the Western Front – and the boy farmhand left behind.
From Captain Budgett, Morpurgo learned of the life of an officer in the British Cavalry in the First World War and the  relationships that developed between the men and the horses.
From Weeks he learned of the frustrations of those too young to sign up and how the Army came to rural villages, buying up horses. And from Ellis he learned of the blood and mud of the trenches and the horror of warfare on the Western Front.
When the film of War Horse opens here next month, the lives of these three men and those of their descendants will be catapulted from the anonymity of life in Iddesleigh.
Here are their stories: tales from the First World War – at home and abroad – that will soon reverberate around the world . . .
The story of Captain Budgett,  the inspiration for Morpurgo’s Captain Nicholls, begins not in the past but in the present day and with the most curious of  coincidences.
When 19-year-old Vanessa Budgett applied for a role in a drama known only as Project Dartmoor, she had no idea what the production was, or that the film had any connection to her family.
All she knew was  that actresses with ‘pale skin type and brown hair’ were required for a period drama. She had heard about it only because her mother’s choir had been sent leaflets asking for people to take part. Her previous experience had been no grander than roles with a local operatic society and school productions.
Vanessa, like her forbears, is from the South West, so her natural appearance was exactly right to play a young West Country girl from 100 years ago.
History: Captain Arthur Budgett on camp in Berkshire with his regiment
History: The great-granddaughter of Captain Budgett, Vanessa

‘I was lucky because I hadn’t been on holiday, and many of the other girls were brown from  having been away or had a spray tan,’ she said. ‘Also, I didn’t have any highlights in my hair.’
Vanessa was on set in the Wiltshire village of Castle Combe for five days in September last year – but she was in the dark as to what was being filmed and nor did she know that it would have special significance to her.
‘I genuinely had no idea what it was, although we had all heard the rumours about Spielberg coming to England.
‘I had heard of the book but I didn’t know about the connection with my great-grandfather  until a few days before filming, when Dad seemed convinced it was going to be War Horse and told me about the inspiration for the book.’
It was only when she caught a glimpse – across a busy take – of Steven Spielberg that the penny finally dropped. ‘On the third day, I was talking to one of the crew who happened to ask me my name and  I told him.
‘He said, “That’s not Budgett as in Captain Budgett, is it?” When I said it was, he said I had better go with him.

‘He took me to meet Mr Morpurgo, and when he was told of the connection he threw his arms around me and said how delighted he was to meet me. Clare, his wife, gave me a big hug, too.
‘We started talking about Captain Budgett and Nethercott, the farm where he lived. The Morpurgos were insistent I go down with my family and visit them.’
Vanessa’s involvement with the main players did not end there.
‘Mr Morpurgo then called Mr Spielberg across and told him who I was. He couldn’t believe the coincidence. He asked me if I minded him taking a photo on his mobile.
‘Everyone on the set was looking at me and it was a bit embarrassing.The whole experience was absolutely surreal. I was so elated just  to be there. To get to meet Mr  Morpurgo and Mr Spielberg was the icing on the cake.’
She has now been invited to a  private screening of the film, together with her grandfather Anthony, father Charles and mother Arabella.
Not that her background quite matches that of her military ancestor. Vanessa has recently finished studying at a comprehensive school in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire. Arthur Budgett, her great-grandfather, was born into privilege; his mother Georgina Rose was part of the Morland brewing dynasty.
Spending his earliest years just six miles from Iddesleigh, the young Budgett was educated at exclusive Haileybury, in Hertfordshire, before spending two years  in Swaziland, where he helped farm cattle and ostriches. But early  in 1915, with war declared, he returned to Britain to enlist in the Berkshire Yeomanry.
He undertook a short spell of training at Aldershot, and was then despatched with his unit to the Eastern Mediterranean, where the war against Turkey, which was allied to Germany, was technologically less advanced than the Western Front, and old-fashioned cavalry charges – swords drawn – still took place.
Inspiration: Wilfred Ellis was a professional violin player after the first world war
Inspiration: Albert Weeks pictured enjoying a drink in the Duke of York
Inspiration: Both Wilfrid Ellis and Albert Weeks are mentioned in the foreward of the book along with Captain Budgett
The war took him from Gallipoli  to Alexandria, then through Palestine to the charge at El Maghar in November 1917.
He disappeared during fighting  at Zeitoun in Egypt and Budgett’s mother received the heartbreaking news that he was missing, presumed dead. In fact, he had been captured and was later transported, mainly on foot, across 800 miles from  Constantinople to Central Anatolia in Turkey.
Some months later, Budgett’s mother was to receive another letter, this time from Budgett himself, confirming he was still alive.
The letter found its way back to England via a Dutchman to whom  it had been handed  on the train journey back to Constantinople. It had been posted, eventually,  from Holland.
When he settled back at Iddesleigh after the First World War, he bought Nethercott, the farmhouse just  outside the village where Michael Morpurgo and his wife Clare now run their charity, Farms For City Children.
It was in Iddesleigh that Captain Budgett talked to Morpurgo about the bond that developed between soldiers and their horses, one of the main themes of the story.
In particular, he told Morpurgo how soldiers in the First World War would confide in their horses and talk to them as the best of friends. Budgett himself had spoken to the horses of his hopes and fears – and the horses had seemed to listen.
In the film, Captain Nicholls, a British Cavalry officer modelled on  Budgett, is paired with Joey, a farm horse bought by the Army at an  auction in Devon.
But Joey’s link to another of the three men who inspired War Horse, Albert Weeks, is even stronger.
While Arthur Budgett was a gentleman, and was to become a master of hounds, Albert Weeks was a farmhand, who spent time as an employee of Budgett at Nethercott.
Extra special: Captain Arthur Budgett's great-granddaughter Vanessa with War Horse author Michael Morpurgo and his wife Clare on set
Extra special: Captain Arthur Budgett's great-granddaughter Vanessa with War Horse author Michael Morpurgo and his wife Clare on set
Legendary: Steven Spielberg shooting War Horse in Wiltshire with Jeremy Irvine
Legendary: Steven Spielberg shooting War Horse in Wiltshire with Jeremy Irvine
Weeks grew up in a hamlet about a mile from Iddesleigh, where he lived in a tied cottage.
Born in 1901, he was too young to enlist when the war broke out, so stayed behind as a farmhand, tending horses. He lived at Burrow Cottage at Nethercott where he landed a job after marrying his sweetheart, Grace, in 1924.
The Weeks’ daughter Margaret, now 85, who owns a bungalow on the outskirts of Iddesleigh, said: ‘Dad looked after the horses that were used for ploughing and worked the land. There was no machinery then, don’t forget.
‘I always remembered the names of two of them, Reuben, but particularly Joe, or Joey. Of all the horses that was always his favourite.’ Joey in War Horse was named after Weeks’s much-loved animal. The pair worked together at Nethercott for more than two decades.
Margaret added: ‘He was a wonderful father. He was very good-tempered and I can’t remember him raising his voice in anger. He was a jolly, friendly man who would do anything for anybody.’
Weeks was renowned in the village for his rendition of Lavender  Trousers (an old music-hall song) following the New Year’s Eve  service in the church and after a couple of pints in the next door Duke of York pub, where he loved a game of darts. It was there he met Morpurgo and regaled him, like Budgett and Ellis, with his recollections of the war to end all wars.
Charles Weeks, 83, his son, still lives in Rosalind Cottage, which adjoins the old village schoolhouse. At the end of last month, a painting of Joey was unveiled there.
Here was another quirk of fate   – as reality intersected with Morpurgo’s fiction once again.
The novel opens by telling of a dusty frame holding an image of the red bay Joey, above a clock that has stopped at one minute past ten. The animal ‘looks wistfully out of the picture, his ears pricked forward, his head turned as if he has just noticed us standing there’.
The old school is still used for evening socials, harvest suppers and parish council meetings, at which Charles’s wife, Joan, who worked for 21 years for Morpurgo, sits as a long-serving member.  Visitors have come looking for the non-existent painting (a figment  of the author’s imagination) and rather than disappoint them, she  has pretended that it was safely  kept elsewhere.
She said: ‘I felt I had to keep the secret. Michael is a lovely man. He adores village life and he doesn’t have any airs and graces. He takes his turn and does his bit to help. We’re all very proud of our connection with him.’
Morpurgo was persuaded to move from London to the depths of Devon by his wife, whose father, Sir Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books, had always liked to take family holidays in Iddesleigh.
These days, Nethercott’s young charity guests learn hands-on where their food comes from, how to work co-operatively as part of a team and the importance of caring for animals.
The idea for War Horse first came to  Morpurgo when he was in the Duke of York pub, talking to Wilfrid Ellis. Ellis took Morpurgo back to his cottage and showed him some things he’d brought back from the Front – his trenching tool, a button, some medals – and told him about living through the war.
Horse power: Arthur Budgett, the inspiration for Morpurgo's Captain Nicholls, on his horse Jazz in 1920
Horse power: Arthur Budgett, the inspiration for Morpurgo's Captain Nicholls, on his horse Jazz in 1920
Ellis, who later worked as an antique dealer, also sold him a print featuring a horse. (That horse, Topthorne, has the same name as the horse running behind Joey in the cavalry charge in War Horse.)
A private in the Norfolk Regiment, Ellis had survived the horror of the Western Front, where Morpurgo decided that Joey and Captain Nicholls should be sent.
Ellis’s pencil-written service record reveals he suffered a leg wound in March 1918, was gassed in August and returned home in time for Christmas. He rarely spoke of his experiences, except to Morpurgo, who extracted them quietly and sensitively, almost unnoticed.
Ellis scrambled from the mud of Flanders after being shot in the ankle and was the last aboard a wagon  taking the wounded to hospital.
The shortage of troops, though, meant he was soon thrust back into the front line. In the wake of a gas attack, and reeling from its effects, his trench was overrun by the Germans. Yet his life was spared.
His widow, Dorothy, who celebrated her 90th birthday on Armistice Day this year, said: ‘He must have been terrified. He would rather have died than been taken prisoner.’ But fate took an unusual twist.
‘One of the German soldiers jumped down into the trench with a fixed bayonet,’ she continued. ‘He just looked at Wilfrid. Later Wilfrid told me he thought the poor devil thought he wasn’t worth the effort of killing.
‘Eventually, he hobbled back to  the British lines, although he said he had no idea how he did it. He had a strong faith.’
Ellis was born in Wimbledon, South-West London. He signed up aged 17 years and ten months.
Dorothy says that despite his leg injury, he was one of the best dancers she knew. A trained violinist, he worked on the cruise ship RMS Empress of Britain and in seaside resorts after the war. He moved to Devon in the Thirties to be close to his sick father. It was there that he met Dorothy. Although they were unable to have their own children, they fostered twin girls, Pauline and Joan.
‘He was always cracking jokes, laughing and singing,’ said Dorothy. ‘He had a beautiful voice.’
Ellis died in 1981, aged 82, without the slightest suspicion that his humble soldiering would one day attract worldwide fame.
lWar Horse in released in cinemas nationwide on January 13.


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