‘Goodbye, Old Man’, watercolour, by Fortunino Matania (1881-1963), depicts a British soldier saying farewell to his dying horse. It was commissioned in 1916 by the Blue Cross animal welfare charity, and now hangs in the board room of the animal hospital in Victoria, London. More than a million horses saw service with the British Army during the First World War, and the Blue Cross treated many thousands.
With a long bloody gash in his right flank, legs writhing in agony, the horse’s head is gently cradled by the soldier’s strong hands, who strokes and kisses his friend’s snout. The horse’s neck lies against the soldier’s lap, where there is comfort, security and support. Perhaps the soldier is crying; it’s hard to tell. The horse is looking up at his friend, but the soldier’s eyes are closed. He is not just a friend right now; he is mother, father, and whole world. He sustains and caresses; confirms and consoles. “It will be alright, Old Man,” he whispers, “I’m right here, I’m not going anywhere.”
With bombs still blasting, fragments flying, dust choking, his colleagues call him to march on, but the soldier will not leave his friend to die alone. He is not just mother, father, and whole world: right now he is God, in whom all love, security and peace are present. If a mother cannot forget the baby at her breast, a man cannot forget his faithful beast. “I shall not leave you or forget you,” he breathes into the horse’s ear, “You are engraved in my heart.”
The harness has been gently removed. The horse is more free than he has ever been, yet there is no place now he’d rather be than resting next to his loving father. There’s less pain in this tent; more love beneath these wings. It is a womb of refuge and salvation. God holds him still and safe. There is trust and compassion; suffering and wonder. And there is infinite love, mingled with dews of peace. “Goodbye, Old Man.”
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.