Recently on one of our battlefield tours, the group visited the In Flanders Fields Museum’. In the museum was a stuffed Jack Russell called Torpille who belonged to a Jules Van Neste, a Belgian Chaplain in World War One, and used as a rat catcher. Our photo shows Torpille in the museum not looking his best thanks to the taxidermist of the time! Many of the battlefield tour party then began to ask questions regarding the animals that served in the Great War, and there were many, of all types.
During the Great War, 16 million animals served and were used for a variety of tasks. The obvious animal that immediately springs to mind is the horse. Both sides had large cavalry forces but with the advent of the Machine Gun, cavalry charges became few and far between. Also the war changed from a war of movement to one of static trench war fare and the cavalry man served mainly as infantry. Horses were then primarily used for transport. They pulled guns, carried ammunition and supplies to the front lines. Feeding the horses was a huge logistical task as they would eat 20lbs of grain per day. In fact supply ships carried at times more supplies to keep the horses going than the troops. The Germans, not having a huge supply of grain, fed the horses sawdust.
As well as horses, there were the beasts of burden, the good old donkey and mule. They laboured tirelessly carrying supplies to the front line. At the Battle of Passchendaele in WW1, many would slip off of the duck boards and sink into the gluttonous mud. With no way to extract them from the mud, they would drown or have to be dispatched with a bullet to the head to ease their suffering.
In all, eight million horses from all sides died during the conflict.
In the dessert campaign, camels were used instead of horses and formed the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade (ICCB). The brigade consisted of four battalions as well as a number of support troops. The ICCB became part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) and fought in several battles and in the Senussi Campaign, the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, and in the Arab Revolt. In the course of these actions 246 men killed and a number of Camels.
Smaller animals also took part in the war. With no radio or telecommunications, pigeons had always been used to carry messages. In World War One a camera was developed and fastened to the bird. It would film the enemy trenches from the air, a sort of 1914/18 ‘drone’. One famous pigeon is ‘Cher Ami’ who served with the US Army Signal Corps. He completed 12 missions in his time at the front. During the last mission he was shot through the leg and breast but still went onto deliver the message he was carrying saving 200 men’s lives.
One animal, if you can call it an animal was used with great effect and that was the common garden slug! In June 1918 slugs were taken to battlefields during the last 5 months of the war and used for detecting mustard gas. They can do this long before humans and would visibly compress their bodies and close their breathing pores. When the troops noticed this, they were aware there was mustard gas around and could quickly put on the respirators.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, dogs played a major part in the Great War. The Belgium Army used them to pull machine guns but their real forté lie in their ability to carry messages. A dog was a very low target running across ‘No Man’s Land’ and moving down the congested trenches. Some dogs were used to find wounded or dying soldiers on the battlefield and carried medical kits on a harness.
Some were highly decorated like Sergeant Stubby (July 21, 1916 – March 16, 1926). Stubby has been called the most decorated war dog of World War One and the only dog to be nominated for rank and then promoted to sergeant through combat. There is no official documentary evidence, but this is recognised with an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution. He was the official mascot of the 102nd Infantry Regiment (United States) and assigned to the 26th (Yankee) Division. Stubby served for 18 months and participated in seventeen battles on the Western Front. He saved his regiment from surprise mustard gas attacks, found and comforted the wounded, and once caught a German soldier by the seat of his pants, holding him there until American soldiers found him. Back home, his exploits were front page news in the major newspapers.
Dogs also became companions for the troops as well as first class rat catchers and were also mascots for the battalions and companies in the fields.
Other animals serving in some form or other were cats (mascots, rat catchers and companions) and monkeys. One monkey called Jackie served in Delville Wood on the Somme with his owner Private Marr. He would fetch cigarettes for the troops in the trenches and with his keen hearing and senses was a great sentry. He would also salute officers as they inspected the trenches! Jackie was to all intent a soldier and even had his own uniform. When wounded, the RAMC treated him having to amputate a leg. Soon he was sitting up in his own bed saluting all who passed by. Our World War One battlefield tour passengers love his story and he is remembered at the Delville Wood Visitor Centre on the Somme along with a picture of him in his uniform.
So when you wear your poppy at Armistice, spare a thought for the animals who served their country during World War One with the same amount of loyalty and bravery as our troops.
Lest we Forget