An emotional time of year for most of us. And in my opinion so it should be. From our own personal experiences, feelings, and memories, as well as hearing stories of war from older relatives and friends, we observe and attend the hundreds of annual Sunday Remembrance services and two-minute silences across our green and pleasant land.
Remembrance Day helps us reflect deeply about how lucky all of us are as a nation; and how it’s due to those brave heroes that fought, and still continue to fight, for us all in every bloody battle, conflict, and terrible war.
But as well as the millions of human heroes that gave their lives for our freedom, how many of us ever also consider those poor animals that helped bring us peace, specifically employed by mankind for use in warfare? They had no choice.
Famously horses always formed the cavalry, drawing heavy artillery, a unique and useful all-purpose, reliable method of transportation. But tragically over eight million horses lost their lives during the Great War; most dying from disease, starvation, or exposure. One of man’s most loyal servants reduced to shivering bags of skin and bones, even resorting to chewing their own rugs for food.
In the deserts, mountains, and tropics, with much tougher terrain, camels and elephants were much better suited, but not forgotten; just like those oxen, mules, and donkeys that carried supplies, arms, as well as our dead and wounded soldiers. Mules serving in the dense jungle in Burma even had their vocal cords severed, to ensure their braying wouldn’t betray Allied positions to the enemy.
Dogs also suffered high casualty rates too used to take messages to soldiers on the front line (pictured), and their excellent sensitivity to smell meant that they were employed to search for mines and trip-wires too, commonly resulting in injury or death from resulting explosions. Some would rip their paws to shreds scrabbling through the rubble of bombed-out buildings looking for survivors or bodies.
Interestingly in recent years it would be extremely rare for a mine detection dog to be killed or injured in this way; mainly because 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. Furthermore dogs are often not heavy enough to set off anti-tank or anti-personnel mines.
These days mine or improvised explosive device (IED)-clearance dogs serving 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 share with their faithful dog when working under these extremely stressful conditions.
Did you know that ‘Para-dogs’ were dropped behind enemy lines to assist with covert operations? And in the Soviet Army, dogs even had explosives strapped to their backs to be used as anti-tank weapons, trained by placing their food directly under tanks. The idea was that these dogs (who were apparently starved) would learn to associate tanks with food and would then proceed to run under any German tanks they saw to find a meal.
Unfortunately the Soviets vastly underestimated their dogs’ intelligence, as the first time the dogs were used instead of attacking the German tanks the dogs recognised the Russian tanks used in training and ran straight under them instead. After this catastrophic misjudgment the use of anti-tank dogs was quickly and unsurprisingly dropped.
Unbelievably war isn’t just about man against man supported by these animals, for animals were even pitted against other animals. For example British carrier pigeons, employed to deliver crucial messages in both First and Second World Wars, would suffer multiple attempts to prevent them reaching their destinations as German hawks were kept at the Pas de Calais, ready and waiting to attack, and kill, our brave, unwitting winged messengers.
Between the hawks, the bullets, and Mother Nature herself some 100,000 pigeons were killed between 1914 to 1918, and hose who survived limped home with oil-clogged feathers, shot-away wings, and ripped-open necks; the difference made by the successful ones was of course absolutely crucial.
Then there were the cats used to control mice and rat populations on warships, and even canaries who would alert sappers to gas; and nowadays modern wartime even sees dolphins and sea lions deployed to detect mines. 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 please take the time to honour those animals who lost their lives for us warring humans. There is a Service of Remembrance for Animals in War today at 3pm at London’s beautiful Animals in War Memorial, Brook Gate, Park Lane which, I know from experience, is both unique and unsurprisingly truly moving too. Details of the service here.