Animals in War

Most of us will find this time of year quite emotional.

This Sunday’s remembrance parades help us reflect on how lucky we really are as a nation; and how it’s all due to those brave heroes that fought for us in every bloody battle, conflict and terrible war.

But does anyone ever consider those poor animals that helped bring us peace, specifically employed by mankind for use in warfare? They didn’t volunteer – they had no choice.
Horses formed the cavalry, drawing artillery, and were a useful all-purpose method of transport. Eight million of them lost their lives during the Great War.

Most died from disease, starvation or exposure. One of man’s most loyal servants reduced to shivering bags of skin and bones, even chewing their own rugs for food.

In the deserts, mountains and tropics, with tougher terrain, camels and elephants were better suited, but not forgotten. Just like those oxen, mules, and donkeys that carried supplies, arms, and our wounded.

Mules serving in the jungle in Burma even had their vocal cords severed, to ensure their braying would not betray Allied positions to the enemy.

Dogs also suffered high casualty rates as their sensitivity to smell meant that they were used to search for mines and trip-wires, resulting in injury or death from explosions. Some would rip their paws to shreds scrabbling through the rubble of bombed-out buildings looking for survivors or bodies.

Para-dogs were dropped behind enemy lines and assisted with covert operations, and in the Soviet Army dogs even had explosives strapped to their backs and were used as anti-tank weapons.

Sadly war isn’t just about man against man supported by animals. Sometimes animals were pitted against other animals.

Carrier pigeons (pictured) delivered crucial messages in both First and Second World Wars. But did you know in attempts to prevent British pigeons reaching their destinations, German hawks were kept at the Pas de Calais waiting to attack our unwitting winged messengers?

British naval pilot releasing a carrier pigeon

Between the hawks, the bullets and Mother Nature some 100,000 pigeons were killed from 1914 to 1918. Those who survived limped home with oil-clogged feathers, shot-away wings, and ripped-open necks; and the difference made by the successful ones was crucial.

Then there were the cats, used to control mice and rat populations on warships; dolphins and sea lions deployed to detect mines and the canaries who would alert sappers to gas.

Lastly the glow worms – by whose soft light World War I soldiers would read their maps in their last moments before going over the top.

We must never forget. Not them, nor anyone or anything else that has made unimaginable sacrifices for every single one of us alive today.

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