Wednesday, September 9, 2015

World War Wednesdays: Elephants at War

     A little while ago, I came across this image of a machine gun mounted upon the back of an elephant, and I wanted to read more about the role that elephants played in wartime. We've talked before about the animals of the First World War, but I had no idea that elephants were also involved. You learn something new everyday, and this is proof that no species on earth was spared the experiences of the world wars!

   During the ravages of the First World War, the intense demands of cavalry warfare led to most of England's horses being purchased by the British military and sent to the Western Front. For those on the home front trying to maintain food production, farmers and traders had to find alternative beasts of burden to carry out the heavy work.

     Pictured above is Lizzie the elephant, who performed tricks as part of a travelling menagerie before the war. When World War One broke out, she was conscripted to help with heavy labour, fitted with a harness, and sent to work at scrap metal merchants in the industrial city of Sheffield, England. Her task was to cart munitions, machines, and scrap metal, which had previously been done by three horses who were shipped off to war. 
     The World's Fair newspaper first documented Lizzie's appearance in February, 1916, noting how the "great dearth of carting facilities in Sheffield" had led to her being "pressed into service" from Sedgewick's menagerie. It read:
     "Last week it was seen striding along with ease drawing a load of iron to a munition works... The weight of the load was equal to that usually allotted to three horses... Some passing horses were startled by this unexpected 'dilution' of their labour, and sniffed and shied as the elephant passed".

     Naturally, this would have been a strange phenomenon for the people of Sheffield, who had never seen an elephant before in their lives. Apparently, Lizzie was quite a character, and there is a story about her putting her trunk through someone's window and stealing their dinner!
     Unfortunately, little is known about Lizzie's fate after the war, though there is some evidence that she went on to work at a farm.

     In the town of Horley, Surrey, England, elephants from the locally-based Lord Sanger's Circus were used during the war to plow fields and transport agricultural loads around farms. Of course, this useful work would also have provided the circus with publicity, so many people benefited from the arrangement. 

     In Germany, elephants experienced a different type of hardship, notably for those living in some of the world's oldest public zoos. Hunger blockades inflicted by Britain brought most German zoos to the verge of bankruptcy, with a vast reduction in animal populations due to food shortages.

   The Tierpark Hagenbeck is a private zoo in Hamburg established in 1863 by Carl Hagenbeck, Sr., a fish seller and amateur animal collector. It was the first zoo to have enclosures surrounded by moats rather than barred cages to seem more like a natural environment. During the First World War, many of the zookeepers were drafted into the army, and some of Hagenbeck's animals were rented out for hauling wood, coal, and on home deliveries, It would not have been unusual to see elephants or trained bears working as draft animals and yoked to heavy wagons.

     The Second World War again brought hardship to German zoos, and significantly to the elephant population. On July 24, 1943, Allied air raids destroyed three-quarters of the Tierpark Hagenbeck in 90 minutes, killing 9 men and 450 animals. In his book titled "Animals Are My Life", Lorenz Hagenbeck documented the devastating event:
     "The worst part of it, however, was the fire, which was now quite beyond control. When the first incendiaries came down on the roof of the elephant house and this burst into flames, our resourceful chief keeper, Fritz Theisinger, quickly loosed his fourteen elephants, which he had kept tethered by only one hind leg, and led them outside. There they could try to avoid the incendiaries which were falling everywhere, and they took refuge in the large pool. Next, aided by the Czech P.O.W.s, he made an attempt to save the house, but at this point the P.O.W.s lost their nerve and ran away."

Even after the war, elephants from the Hamburg Zoo were commissioned to assist with cleanup

     Last week, I talked about my interest in how historical events on a large scale affected individuals on a small scale, and this week's post goes beyond that to include even the most unlikely of the four-legged wartime experiences. It is hard to imagine how scary and unfamiliar these events would have been for these gentle giants, and their story serves as proof of the devastating effects of human conflict in all aspects of life.
     Thanks for reading, 

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