Wednesday, April 29, 2015

World War Wednesdays: The Animals of the First World War

     The vast scope of devastation and destruction brought on by the First World War saw the deaths of over 37 million  people across the globe, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. A hundred years later, the efforts being made to remember and recognize the contributions of the fallen are instrumental in our understanding of the Great War. However, the estimated  nine million non-human deaths caused by the conflict often do not receive the same recognition, despite their level of significance during the conflict itself. This week's post focuses on just a few examples of animal participation in the First World War and the role that they played in assisting with the human war effort.


     Before 1914, wars had mainly been fought by cavalries - soldiers who fought on horseback using swords and guns. When war broke out in Western Europe in August 1914, both Britain and Germany each had a cavalry force numbering around 100,000 men. Such a large number of men obviously required a massive number of horses, but at the time the senior army officers had all been experienced in the warfare styles of the 19th century and thus believed in the supremacy of cavalry warfare. However, the horrific new phenomena of trench warfare saw the cavalry units rendered useless and replaced by machine guns, trenches, and barbed wire. With motorized vehicles a relatively new invention and prone to problems in the tough conditions, the massive number of horses and mules already at the front were re-employed as a vital means of transportation. Ambulance horses carried wounded soldiers and artillery horses carried weapons, ammunition and other heavy loads.
Two German soldiers and their mule in their gas masks, circa 1916

     Over eight million horses used as such lost their lives during the war, at great devastation to the men who served alongside them. Australia alone sent over 136,000 horses to the front, and only one returned. The following is an account of a service horse named Sailor which reflects the relationship between the soldiers and their equine companions:
     "He (Sailor) would work for 24 hours a day without winking. He was quiet as a lamb and as clever as a thoroughbred, but he looked like nothing on earth, so we lost him. The whole artillery battery kissed him goodbye and the drivers and gunners who fed him nearly cried"


     Manmade communication systems during the First World War were still crude and unreliable, so over 100,000 carrier pigeons were employed to deliver messages along the front by all sides. Incredibly, the pigeons would advance along with their fighting forces, and even when their lofts had been moved due to advance they would still return despite flying "blind". Since they were difficult to shoot down by the opposing forces, the pigeons continuously proved themselves as an effective method of communication. Records indicate that 95% of carrier pigeons delivered their messages correctly. The invaluable contribution by these feathered friends made pigeons the first animals to be awarded with war medals.


A German messenger dog  leaps a trench on the Western Front in May 1917
         Some of the hardest and most trusted workers during the war were dogs. The most popular used at the front were medium-sized, such as Dobermans and German Shepherds. It is estimated that by 1918 Germany had employed 30,000 dogs, Britain, France, and Belgium over 20,000, and Italy 3,000. Depending on their size, intelligence, and training, dogs were placed in a wide variety of positions to assist with the war effort. Sentry dogs  were trained to accompany usually one specific guard and were taught to give a warning signal such as a growl, bark or snarl to indicate when an unknown or suspect presence was in the secure area such as a camp or military base. Scout dogs were useful to the military because they could detect enemy scent up to 1000 yards away, sooner than any man could. Instead of barking and thus drawing attention to the squad, the dogs would stiffen raise its shackles and point its tail, which indicated that the enemy was encroaching upon the terrain. Known as 'Sanitatshunde' in Germany, casualty dogs were trained to find the wounded and dying on battlefields and were equipped with medical supplies to aid those suffering. Those soldiers who could help themselves to supplies would tend to their own wounds, whilst other more gravely wounded soldiers would seek the company of a Mercy dog to wait with them whilst they died. Messenger dogs proved to be as reliable as soldiers in the dangerous job of running messages. A trained dog was faster than a human runner, presented less of a target to a sniper and could travel over any terrain. In addition to these practical uses for canines, mascot dogs played a significant role on the western front. For men trapped in the horrors of trench warfare, a dog in the trenches (whether a messenger dog or not) was a psychological comfort that took away, if only for a short time, the horrors they lived through.For many soldiers on any of the sides that fought in the trenches, a dog must have reminded them of home comforts.  

Sergeant Stubby
     America, at first, did not use dogs except to utilise a few hundred from the Allies for specific missions. Later, after a chance stowaway, the USA produced the most decorated and highly-ranked service dog in military history. Stubby was found wandering the grounds of Yale University campus in New Haven, Connecticut in July 1917 while members of the 102nd Infantry were training. The dog hung around as the men drilled and one soldier, Corporal Robert Conroy, developed a fondness for the dog. When it came time for the outfit to ship out, Conroy hid Stubby on board the troop ship. As they were getting off the ship in France, he hid Stubby under his overcoat without detection. Upon discovery by Conroy's commanding officer, Stubby saluted him as he had been trained to in camp, and the commanding officer allowed the dog to stay on board. 
Stubby served with the 102nd Infantry Regiment in the trenches in France for 18 months and participated in four offensives and 17 battles. He entered combat on February 5, 1918 at Chemin des Dames, north of Soissons, and was under constant fire, day and night for over a month. In April 1918, during a raid to take Schieprey, Stubby was wounded in the foreleg by the retreating Germans throwing hand grenades. He was sent to the rear for convalescence, and as he had done on the front was able to improve morale. When he recovered from his wounds, Stubby returned to the trenches. He ultimately had two wound stripes.
In his first year of battle Stubby was injured by mustard gas, after he recovered, he returned to a specially designed gas mask to protect him. Also, he learned to warn his unit of poison gas attacks, located wounded soldiers in no man's land, and — since he could hear the whine of incoming artillery shells before humans could — became very adept at letting his unit know when to duck for cover. He was solely responsible for capturing a German spy in the Argonne Due to his capture of the enemy spy, the commander of the 102 Infantry nominated Stubby for the rank of sergeant. Following the retaking of Ch√Ęteau-Thierry by the US, the women of the town made Stubby a chamois coat on which were pinned his many medals. He also helped free a French town from the Germans. He was later injured in the chest and leg by a grenade. At the end of the war, Robert Conroy smuggled Stubby home.
     Stubby died in his sleep in 1926. He received a half-page obituary in the New York Times, longer than most notable figures of the time. After his death, he was preserved with his skin mounted on a plaster cast. Conroy presented Stubby to the Smithsonian in 1956.
Sergeant Stubby's brick at the Liberty Memorial
     Big and small, these animals were all drawn into one of the greatest conflicts in human history and performed incredible services under the greatest pressure and duress possible. Their lives and deaths are one of the most enduring and remarkable aspects of the First World War, and  their relationships with their human counterparts were recognized with respect not only at the time but to the present day.

Thanks for reading,

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