Unsung heroes of war – Dogs and other animals

Unsung heroes of war - Dogs and other animals

Unsung heroes of war: Dogs and other animals

Purple poppies are specifically to remember the animals who died in war, the unsung heroes of war – dogs and other animals. Seemingly less known than the traditional red flower it can be worn alongside. An example of such purple poppies can be purchased from Murphy’s Army as of the beginning of October.

A WWI allied soldier bandages the paw of a Red Cross working dog in Flanders, Belgium, May 1917. Photograph by Harriet Chalmers Adams, National Geographic

There are hundreds of tales on the amazing part of war dogs; one such is of an Airedale, named Jack, whom came to the rescue of his battalion when they found themselves totally cut off, surrounded by shell-holes and barbed wire – and needed to summon reinforcements.

Captain Richardson in the trenches with his dog in 1914

“No man could get through the environment, and their one chance was Jack,” said Alastair Petrie, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Territorial Army who has owned a number of Airedales. “A piece of shrapnel smashed his jaw, but he carried on, and another shell tore open his coat right down his back, and he kept on going. Finally his forepaw was shattered, but he dragged his body for the last three kilometres. He arrived, covered in blood and died of his injuries on arrival, the message, however, got through.”

World War I: dog rescuing the wounded

Up to 20,000 dogs were trained for front-line duties during World War One. Lots of breeds were used, but the most popular were medium sized intelligent and trainable breeds. Citizens even offered up their pets for service. There were several functions for the roles of dogs in war, depending on their size, intelligence and training. Generally the roles fell into categories of sentry dogs, scout dogs, casualty dogs, explosive dogs, ratters and mascot dogs.

Dogs at the British War Dog School in Essex Mary Evans Picture Library

Following the outbreak of war, people struggled to feed themselves, let alone their dogs. Battersea Dogs Home, established in 1860 had already received an influx of dogs following, with some desperate owners slipping off their dog’s collars and brought to Battersea Dogs Home pretending they were strays. One account tells a story of a woman breaking down in tears, after her pet tried to follow her out of the home as she left.

Candidates for the War Dog School initially came from Battersea Dogs’ Home in south London, but as demand increased – the dogs’ service was often cut short, for obvious reasons – members of the public were asked to donate their pets.

Astoundingly, it’s estimated that nearly 750,000 domesticated animals, mostly cats and dogs, were euthanized in Britain over the course of one week at the start of WWII… 3/4 million pets in one week. In the summer of 1939, just before the outbreak of war, the National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee (NARPAC) was formed. It drafted a notice

Advice to Animal Owners.

The pamphlet said: “If at all possible, send or take your household animals into the country in advance of an emergency.” It concluded: “If you cannot place them in the care of neighbours, it really is kindest to have them destroyed.”

The advice was printed in almost every newspaper and announced on the BBC.  The pamphlet set off a wave of panic.  It was “a national tragedy in the making” As there were no rations provided for pets, it was thought euthanasia was the humane decision rather than watching a beloved animal die slowly from starvation or disease.  As the war progressed across Europe, this same trend followed along with it. In addition to household pets, several zoos  in Europe were destroyed by bombings. Thousands of animals were either killed outright or died later from their injuries or disease due to lack of food and basic care.

Sergeant stubby, has been called the most decorated war dog of World War 1, he saved his regiment from surprise mustard gas attacks, found and comforted the wounded, and once caught a German soldier by his pants, holding him there until American soldiers found him.

(July 21, 1916 – March 16, 1926) Original caption: Washington, DC: Meet up with Stubby, a 9-year-old veteran of the canine species. He has been through the World War as mascot for the 102nd Infantry, 26th Division. Stubby visited the White House to call on President Coolidge. November 1924

Since World War Two there’s been a huge desire to recognize the role animals played in conflict. Unsung heroes of war – Dogs and other animals have been awarded The Dickin medal, the equivalent of the military’s Victoria Cross, which was established in 1943 by the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals), a charity that looks after injured animals.

Rob, (1939 – 18 January 1952) was a Collie dog, who was awarded the Dickin Medal in February 1945. He was alleged, to have made over 20 parachute descents during the North African Campaign serving with the SAS.

Unsung heroes of war – Dogs and other animals

In total 70 animals have been awarded the Dickin Medal since it was first established in 1943 – plus 1 Honorary PDSA Dickin Medal which was awarded in 2014. The recipients comprise 33 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and 1 cat. Some regiments kept dogs as mascots, not for direct service, but to help lift the soldiers’ spirits. Some soldiers even took their pets with them to war.

In addition, Eight million horses and countless mules and donkeys died in World War One, according to the Animals In War Memorial charity. By the time World War Two came round, so many horses had been killed that there simply weren’t enough horses for British troops to rely on hooves. Britain had to start using machines rather than animals.

Around 300,000 pigeons served Britain in the two world wars, carrying vital messages. They became so important for delivering information, you could be imprisoned for six months or fined £100 (a lot more money at that time) if you hurt or killed one. – Cher Ami, French for dear friend, is perhaps the most famous war pigeon. She saved the lives of hundreds of soldiers during one battle by battling on and delivering her message, even though her leg was blown off and she was blinded in one eye by German fire.

Cher Ami on display at the Smithsonian Institution

This is part of the Land of Dogs favorite poem ‘For the Fallen’  by Laurence Binyon  

‘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.’


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