The Dogs of War: The Vital Roles of Animals in World War One

Animals were used in the First World War on an unprecedented scale.

Horses were certainly the most important animals in the war effort, but numerous other animals played their part – particularly pigeons and dogs.  The front required constant, huge supplies of munitions and supplies, and the transport of massive armies meant that animals had an essential role to play as beasts of burden.

By World War Two most of the supply roles had become mechanized, so the First World War was unique in that modern problems were met with animal solutions.

Horses and Cavalry

While the romantic ideals of gallant mass cavalry charges were soon proven ineffective by rapid firing rifles and machine guns, they still had a major role to play in reconnaissance and logistics, along with of plugging advances quickly.

At the beginning of the war most sides anticipated a fluid war which would require extensive use of cavalry

cavalrycharge

Ottoman cavalry charging over a ridge.

But advances in small arms and artillery meant the battlefield was rarely a good place for horses

horsedead

As artillery became more powerful, battlefields were increasingly devastated – often turning No Man’s Land into a largely impassable quagmire of mud. 

On the first day of the Battle of Verdun 7,000 horses were killed by shelling

verdunhorses

Horses and mules maintained a very important role in logistics

mule

The unloading a mule in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1915. The escalating warfare drove Britain and France to import horses and mules from overseas by the 100,000s.

Horses and mules had a particularly important role transporting artillery and munitions

army-horse

Two mules carrying shells on the Western Front.

 In the Middle Eastern campaign, the war remained fluid – often camel replaced the roles of horses as cavalry mounts

camels

ww1-camels

Camels line a huge watering station, Asluj, Palestinian campaign, 1916.

Horses had important roles to play in transporting artillery, and when batteries were gas shelled horses needed similar protection to the men

horse-in-gas-mask-ww1

Army Veterinary Corps tending to an injured horse in France – 2.5 million animal admissions were attended to by the corps

vetinary-corps

80% of horses tended to by the AVC were able to return to the front.

By the end of the war, 800,000 horses and mules were in service in the British army

horses-in-british-army-ww1

Image from Who were the real warhorses of World War One? – BBC iWonder. The number of horses involved in the war effort created a headache for the British Treasury once victory arrived.

With so many horses enlisted in the war effort, workers were forced to look to alternative, more exotic sources of animal labour

elephant

This elephant was used to transport munitions in Hamburg, and a circus elephant called Lizzie was used for the same job in Sheffield.


Pigeons and Communication

Pigeons were another multi-purpose animal in the war effort. In an age of under developed telephony and battlefield radio, they served in important roles for relaying messages.

pigeon2

In Britain killing, wounding or molesting a homing pigeon was punishable with 6 months imprisonment

shooting-pigeons

This came into force after the Defence of the Realm Act (1916).

Cher Ami saves the lost battalion

One Pigeon was named ‘Cher Ami’ (Dear Friend) and was awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palme for her assistance in saving 194 American soldiers trapped behind German lines in 1918. She made it back to her loft despite having been shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, covered in blood and with a leg hanging only by a tendon.

Some pigeons were equipped with cameras to survey the battlefields

pgcam

Small, quick and reliable, pigeons proved excellent on reconnaissance missions.


Dogs and Cats

These normally domesticated animals served as logistics assistants, medical assistants and as companions to fighting men.

dogcart

Here Belgian refugees use a dog to pull their possessions.

Mercy Dogs were sent into No-Man’s Land to search out the wounded

mercydog

They carried supplies so that a casualty could treat himself, or they simply provided companionship to the dying in their final moments.

Messenger dogs were often used to relay information between different lines

A German messenger dog leaps a trench, possibly near Sedan on the Western Front, May 1916.

Sergeant Stubby: The most decorated dog of the war

sergeant-stubby-ww1

Sergeant Stubby started out as the mascot of the 102nd Infantry, 26th Yankee Division, and ended up becoming a full-fledged combat dog. Brought up to the front lines, he was injured in a gas attack early on, which gave him a sensitivity to gas that later allowed him to warn his soldiers of incoming gas attacks by running and barking. He helped find wounded soldiers, and even cornered and captured a German spy who was trying to map allied trenches.

A dog born into warfare

dogtreated

This dog was born on the battlefield and adopted by a French Howitzer battery. He was injured twice and treated by the Blue Cross vets who bandaged his lacerated ear.

Individual regiments often had their own animal mascot

catcannon

Here the feline mascot of the light cruiser HMS Encounter, peers from the muzzle of a 6-inch gun.

sammy-stuffed-alnwick

Sammy served with the Northumberland Fusiliers – now sits stuffed in Alnwick Castle.


horsesilhouette

The First World War is rightly remembered for the enormous loss of human life, but it should not be forgotten that many animals were also required to make that ultimate sacrifice.

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.