Epitaph for a horse

Most of the old soldiers buried in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, close to where I live, had only two legs

Most of the old soldiers buried in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, close to where I live, had only two legs. Indeed, some had considerably fewer than that as a result of their services to the British Empire. But at least one of them had four. And this week, as Kabul fell again, I stopped by his grave for the umpteenth time to read the epitaph.

Vonolel was a horse, to put it bluntly. But the Victorians didn't hold this against him, and when he died in Dublin 102 years ago, he was buried with full military honours. Or at any rate, a handsome headstone and an exclusive plot in a corner of the military hospital's formal garden.

Horse or not, he knew all about Afghanistan. He was, as the tombstone says, for 23 years the "charger and faithful friend" of Lord Roberts of Kandahar, Kipling's favourite general and eventually commander-in-chief of the British army. As such, he was a veteran of Roberts's epic march from Kabul to Kandahar in August 1880 to relieve the remains of a regiment routed at the Battle of Maiwand.

Nowadays, military opportunities for a horse are limited. But 19th-century Britain was a glory era. It wasn't quite the Roman Empire, when a horse might reasonably aspire to a position in the Senate. Yet there were plenty of prizes to be had, and Vonolel won most of them. He was extensively decorated by Queen Victoria, with the Afghan medal, the Kandahar Star (for the march)and the 1897 Jubilee medal. And in the jubilee procession, he had the special honour of parading behind the royal carriage.


He spent his final days at Kilmainham, eating well-deserved oats, before he kicked the bucket (metaphorically, anyway) in June 1899. But although the Victorians had showered him with honours in this world, there was a note of pained uncertainty about what might happen in the next. The poem on his headstone reads: "There are men both good and wise/Who hold that in a future state/Dumb creatures who have served us here below/Shall give us joyful greeting when we pass the golden gate./Is it folly that I hope it may be so?"

An account of the Battle of Maiwand was carried recently in this newspaper (An Irishwoman's Diary, September 25th). So suffice to say here that the British met a grim fate at the hands of the Afghans, or "murderous Ghazis" as they were known in contemporary press reports. One early despatch speculated that soldiers who escaped the massacre but were still missing had probably fallen victim to thirst, or the surrounding villagers, "and it is well-known that the Afghans do not make prisoners".

Thirst was also a feature of the subsequent relief march. One history book mentions the case of an officer who accompanied Roberts from Kabul, "haunted throughout by the thought of iced champagne". So haunted was he that, when ordered to go to the nearest railway station, in India, he telegraphed ahead to reserve a bottle and "rode breakneck for three days and nights". Only to find, in his own words: "Oh! The disappointment: the ice was melted, the champagne was corked, and the next morning I had a head."

From the reports, he was indeed lucky to have a head after Afghanistan, and warm champagne should have been the least of his worries. But officers were a breed apart then. Indeed, they remain so to this day at the RHK where, recognising the dangers of being too familiar with the men, there are separate cemeteries for officers and other ranks. The headstones for the latter category are strikingly modest compared with the one given the horse, never mind the officers.

Speaking of breeds apart, the September article also mentioned Bobby, another four- legged veteran of the Afghan wars. Bobby was a dog who went one better than Vonolel by actually serving at the Battle of Maiwand. Where, according to the respected website, "Animal heroes that have won medals", he stood at the head of the regiment "barking defiantly" before being taken prisoner. Despite the Afghans' reputation, he survived this experience. Back in England, he was - yes - decorated by Queen Victoria; but, like many old soldiers, he had problems adjusting to civilian life. What the Ghazis didn't do, English traffic did. Eighteen months later, he was run over by a hansom cab, and the queen reportedly cried at the news.

Now stuffed in the regimental museum, Bobby - described in most military history books only as a "white mongrel" - is proof that, even without breeding, in those class-conscious Victorian times, you could still be a war hero. Although not necessarily an officer. It's perhaps worth noting that, even now, outside the garden where Vonolel is buried, a sign says "no dogs allowed".


Frank McNally

Frank McNally

Frank McNally is an Irish Times journalist and chief writer of An Irish Diary