Animals in War: They Didn’t Volunteer – They Had No Choice.

Most of us will find this time of year very emotional. The annual Sunday remembrance parades across the land help all of us us reflect on how lucky we really are as a nation; and how it’s all due to those brave heroes that fought – and still continue to fight – for us in every bloody battle, conflict and terrible war.

But do many people 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 transportation. 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 much 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.

In recent years it would be extremely rare for a mine detection dog to be killed or injured in this way. This is mainly because a) the dogs are trained not to step on the mines and the way they are worked is very strictly controlled. Usually once a dog has detected a mine it is trained to sit beside it as a sign to the handler that it has found something.

And b) the dogs are not heavy enough to set off anti-tank mines or most anti-personnel mines.

Mine-clearance dogs in teams of all nationalities are extremely well looked after and deeply loved by their handlers. Not really surprising since the handlers life depends on the close bond they have with their dog when working in a mine field.

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

These anti-tank dogs were trained by placing their food under tanks. The idea was that the dogs would learn to associate tanks with food  and would then run under any German tanks they saw to find food.

Unfortunately they underestimated the dogs intelligence. The first time the dogs were used was a catastrophe. When the dogs were released instead of attacking the German tanks the dogs recognized the Russian tanks used in training and ran under them instead. The use of anti tank dogs was quickly dropped…

Soviet Anti-tank Dog
Soviet Anti-tank Dog

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

Carrier pigeons 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?

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.

So why not honour those animals who lost their lives for us warring humans and attend the Animals in War Memorial Service, Brook Gate, Park Lane, London on Sunday 8th November at 10.30am. I attended last year and it was a truly moving and unique experience. For more information click here.

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3 replies

  1. That’s a truly touching message Marc.

    If I could be there, I would but I have a service locally to go to. I learned alot about animals and war from reading your blog and feel moved to remember all living creatures that were and are involved in warfare.

    All my love

    Emma x

  2. Unfortunately I am in France so cannot attend. My father always remember, how as a child, his horse was ‘taken’ for the war; she was a grey horse, Bessy, so was taken in one of the last round ups as dark horses were taken first. He never forgot her, and always wondered what had happened.
    In the last days of his life, when I was caring for him, he talked about her and asked if I had fed her properly, some 60 years after the event. So sad..

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