Photo story

12 Ways Animals Have Helped The War Effort

Throughout history animals have accompanied men into combat as modes of transport and communication, protectors and companions. They have fulfilled a variety of roles – from carrying men and munitions to evacuating the wounded, performing guard and sentry duties to carrying out search and rescue operations, detecting gas in trenches to locating improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan.

Here are some of the ways animals have helped the war effort from the First World War to the present day.

  • 1. Cavalry and Horse-mounted Infantry

    9th Hodson's Horse (Bengal Lancers), Indian Army, near Vraignes during the Battle of Arras, April 1917.
    9th Hodson's Horse (Bengal Lancers), Indian Army, near Vraignes during the Battle of Arras, April 1917.
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    When the First World War broke out in 1914, both sides had large cavalry forces. Horse and camel-mounted troops were used throughout the war, particularly in the desert campaigns, but on the Western Front cavalry charges became increasingly difficult as the fighting became deadlocked and trench warfare took over. Over the course of the twentieth century, the role of cavalry continued to change as combat became more mechanised.

  • 2. Medical evacuation

    Regimental aid post and horse ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), during the Third Battle of Ypres, 24 September 1917.
    Regimental aid post and horse ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), during the Third Battle of Ypres, 24 September 1917.
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    Ambulances – both horse-drawn and motorised – were part of a vast network of medical services set up to treat the wounded. Pictured here is a horse-drawn ambulance on the Western Front during the First World War. Animals were also used to evacuate the wounded when wheeled or motorised transport was not possible, either because of rough terrain or where roads were in poor condition. In desert conditions, camels fitted with cacolets to carry the wounded would transport casualties to aid posts, dressing stations or field hospitals. One camel could usually carry two injured men – one on each side of its hump. 

  • 3. Transport

    Pack mules carry shells through the mud near Ypres during the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, 1 August 1917.
    Pack mules carry shells through the mud near Ypres during the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, 1 August 1917.
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    During the First World War, pack animals like horses, donkeys and mules travelled over landscapes destroyed by heavy bombardments to deliver the war materiel needed at the front. Working individually or in teams, they would carry heavy guns and ammunition, as well as other vital supplies, especially where the use of motorised transport was impossible. This practice continued into the Second World War, when elephants were also used to carry weapons and ammunition in the Far East. Animals were not only used to carry weapons and supplies, but to transport men as well.

  • 4. Labour and heavy lifting

    An elephant pulls a Chance Vought Corsair into position on a Fleet Air Arm airfield in India, June 1944.
    An elephant pulls a Chance Vought Corsair into position on a Fleet Air Arm airfield in India, June 1944.
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    Horses, mules, donkeys, oxen and even elephants were used for heavy labour during the First and Second World Wars. They would be used in constructing roads and railways, or to carry heavy loads across difficult terrain that was unsuitable for motorised transport. Mules were particularly adept at navigating the rocky landscape that was a feature of the Italian campaign during the Second World War, while in the Far East the skill and strength of the elephant in manoeuvring large objects was particularly useful for building bridges.

  • 5. Clearing up bomb damage

    Circus elephants Kiri and Many move a wrecked car in Hamburg in the aftermath of the Second World War, 5 November 1945.
    Circus elephants Kiri and Many move a wrecked car in Hamburg in the aftermath of the Second World War, 5 November 1945.
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    Kiri and Many were circus elephants in Hamburg, Germany. During the Second World War, their strength was mobilised by local authorities to clear the wreckage resulting from Allied bombing raids. Kiri and Many continued to clear up bomb damage after the war ended. This photograph of the two elephants moving a wrecked car was taken six months after the German surrender.

  • 6. Search and Rescue

    'Rip' the dog and an ARP Warden survey the scene of devastation following an air raid in East London, 28 July 1941.
    'Rip' the dog and an ARP Warden survey the scene of devastation following an air raid in East London, 28 July 1941.
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    Dogs, with their keen sense of smell, could seek out soldiers and civilians in distress or in need of assistance. During the First World War, search and rescue dogs would venture out into no man's land to locate wounded men. They carried water and medical supplies to men out of the reach of ambulances, and could lead stretcher parties to wounded soldiers stranded in no man's land. Dogs also performed search and rescue duties on the home front during the Second World War, helping to locate people trapped under debris following German air raids. Pictured here is Rip, a stray dog adopted by the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) in Poplar, East London, who helped locate victims after German air raids during the Second World War.

  • 7. Communications

    A message is put into a container and attached to a carrier pigeon by members of 61st Division Signals, 3 July 1941.
    A message is put into a container and attached to a carrier pigeon by members of 61st Division Signals, 3 July 1941.
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    Pigeons and dogs, often able to navigate battlefields more quickly and easily than humans, were trained to carry messages. This task was especially important when technology failed or when other forms of communication were cut off. So vital were carrier pigeons that during the First World War anyone caught 'killing, wounding or molesting' a pigeon could be imprisoned or fined. War dogs attended a special training school to help them become accustomed to the sights and sounds of battle, helping them stay focused on their missions even in the midst of war.

  • 8. Guard dogs and scouts

    Private John Rudd, 1st Battalion, The Middlesex Regiment, in a Korean village with his dog, which was trained for guard duties.
    Private John Rudd, 1st Battalion, The Middlesex Regiment, in a Korean village with his dog, which was trained for guard duties.
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    Dogs, with their sensitive hearing and heightened sense of smell, are particularly suited for detection duties. Guard dogs are employed to watch over militarily important locations – such as railways, bridges, defence installations and ammunition stores – and give warning of any trespassers. Scouting dogs similarly alert their handlers to the presence of enemy troops, but this has to be done silently so as not to give away a patrol's position.

  • 9. Mine detection

    A military working dog and its handler complete an EOD training drill at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, on 22 August 2012.
    A military working dog and its handler complete an EOD training drill at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, on 22 August 2012.
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    Dogs' remarkable sense of smell has also been harnessed by the military throughout the twentieth century to locate mines and concealed IEDs (improvised explosive devices). In this photograph, taken in August 2012, a military working dog completes a drill in the Camp Bastion EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) and Search Task Force, 33 Engineering Regiment training area. Camp Bastion was the principal British base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

  • 10. Gas detection

    The 3rd Australian Tunnelling Company's Mine Rescue Station at Hulluch, near Loos in France, 31 January 1918.
    The 3rd Australian Tunnelling Company's Mine Rescue Station at Hulluch, near Loos in France, 31 January 1918.
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    This photograph was taken near Loos in France on 31 January 1918 and displays rescue equipment used by the 3rd Australian Tunnelling Company during the First World War. The cages in the foreground were used to carry mice or canaries, which were used to detect the presence of poison gas.

  • 11. Pest control

    Pet dog of the Middlesex Regiment with its catch of rats in the trenches on the Western Front during the First World War.
    Pet dog of the Middlesex Regiment with its catch of rats in the trenches on the Western Front during the First World War.
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    Conditions in the trenches could lead to infestations of disease-spreading pests, particularly rats attracted by food, waste and dead bodies. Cats and dogs were sometimes trained to hunt these vermin and help maintain hygiene in the trenches. This is the pet dog of the Middlesex Regiment, pictured with its catch of rats in a trench on the Western Front during the First World War. Cats were also kept on board Royal Navy and merchant ships to hunt vermin and protect the food stores from rats – a role they have played throughout history.

  • 12. Pets and Mascots

    Eustace the mouse with members of the crew of LCT (Landing Craft Tank) 947 during Operation 'Overlord', June 1944.
    Eustace the mouse with members of the crew of LCT (Landing Craft Tank) 947 during Operation 'Overlord', June 1944.
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    Animals are not only used for work. Dogs, cats, pigs and goats – as well as the more unusual monkeys, bears and lions – were kept as pets and mascots to raise morale and provide comfort amidst the hardships of war. Superstition also played a part as mascots were thought to bring good luck to troops.