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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
11. Pest control
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
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.
Learn more about seven of the most important animals that accompanied men and women into battle over the past 100 years.
This is Jet, an Alsatian trained as a search and rescue dog during the Second World War. He and his handler recovered 150 people from the debris of the air raids. On one occasion Jet located a woman buried in a bombed-out hotel and refused to move for 12 hours while rescuers tried to reach her. Jet was awarded the Dickin Medal in January 1945.
Throughout history, animals have accompanied men and women into combat. Over 16 million animals served in the First World War. As warfare changed, the way that animals assisted in wars changed too. From elephants used to build bridges, to dogs that can locate explosives, we’re taking a look at the vital role that 7 of our animal comrades have played over the past 100 years.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, both sides had large cavalry forces and, as in previous wars, expected them to play an important part in the fighting. However, while Horse and Camel-mounted troops were vital in open desert fronts, the western front was a different story. Trench warfare and muddy conditions made cavalry virtually useless. Nonetheless, the roles of horses continued to be essential.
Millions of horses were used by all the combatant nations in the first world war. They transported men, supplies and equipment, and pulled vehicles and guns. Horse-drawn ambulances were part of a vast network of medical services set up to treat the wounded. Even throughout the Second World War, horses and donkeys were still the backbones of many armies. The seemingly invincible German army, whose blitzkrieg swept across Europe in 1940, was primarily horse drawn.
An unlikely war hero, the simple pigeon played a hugely important role in the First and Second World Wars. A crucial task of animals was carrying messages. So vital were carrier pigeons that during the First World War anyone caught 'killing, wounding or molesting' a pigeon could be imprisoned or fined.
Gustav was one of the RAF's messenger pigeons during the Second World War and one of six birds given to news correspondent Montagu Taylor ahead of D-Day. On the 6 June 1944 Gustav carried back the first news from the D-Day landings in Normandy. He flew more than 150 miles – from the northern coast of France to his loft near Portsmouth – in just over five hours to deliver this message. Gustav was awarded the Dickin Medal in September 1944.
In desert conditions, camels played a vital role. They could be fitted with gear to transport casualties to aid posts or field hospitals. Camels were also used in the Sinai and Palestine campaigns. Their ability to carry heavy loads and go without water made them an ideal mode of transport in hot climates. Here, an Australian soldier demonstrates how tame his camel is by putting his wrist in its mouth, in Egypt in 1917.
Horses, mules, donkeys and oxen were used for heavy labour throughout the First and Second World Wars. They would be used in constructing roads and railways, or to carry heavy loads across difficult terrain. Mules were particularly adept at navigating the rocky landscape that was a feature of the Italian campaign during the Second World War.
Animal welfare was taken very seriously. Here we see some British troops scraping mud from a mule on the Western Front in 1916.
While donkeys, horses, mules and oxen were at work in Europe, in the Far East, the skill and strength of the elephant was particularly useful. Elephants were used for transportation, heavy lifting and building work. Even elephants living in Europe got involved with the war effort. Kiri and Manny were circus elephants living in Hamburg in Germany. During the Second World War, this pair were transferred to reconstruction work by local authorities, to help clear the wreckage from Allied bombing raids. Here we see the two elephants clearing up a suburb – the news reporter tells us that for this strenuous job their reward is extra fodder.
Animals were not only used for work. Many animals were kept as pets and mascots to raise morale and provide comfort amidst the hardships of war. As well as dogs and cats, mascots came in all shapes and sizes, including monkeys, bears, pigs, lions and foxes.
Wojtek was the pet mascot of a Polish Company during the Second World War. The Syrian brown bear was adopted as a cub by the troops as they passed through Iran on their way to the Middle East. Wojtek, meaning 'little one', eventually grew to over six feet tall. But he was extremely comfortable in human company, often play-fighting with the men. In 1943, the unit were posted to Italy and Wojtek was enlisted so that he could accompany them - he was even given the rank of Private. During the fierce fighting, Wojtek helped keep the front-line troops supplied by carrying heavy shells and ammunition. After the war, Wojtek travelled with the unit to Scotland, where he eventually found a home at Edinburgh Zoo.
But perhaps the most versatile animal worker throughout the past 100 years is that trusty companion to humans: the dog. As well as sending messages and navigating the battlefield, dogs, with their sensitive hearing and sense of smell, are particularly suited for detection duties. During the First World War, search and rescue dogs would venture out into no man's land to locate wounded men. They carried medical supplies and could lead stretcher parties to wounded, stranded soldiers.
On the home front during the Second World War, they performed a similar task, helping to locate people trapped under debris following the air raids.
Judy was adopted as a mascot by HMS Grasshopper during the Second World War. When the ship was torpedoed, Judy and the crew were captured by the Japanese and held as prisoners of war. Leading Aircraftsman, Frank Williams, shared his rations with her throughout their imprisonment. Williams even managed, in an attempt to safeguard her life, to have Judy registered as a POW. Judy was extremely protective – she would bark to distract the guards if they beat the prisoners, and often left the camp to bring back food. The crew were liberated in 1945. Judy was awarded the Dickin Medal the following year for 'magnificent courage and endurance and also for saving many lives through her intelligence and watchfulness'.
A dogs’ loyalty, courage, heightened senses and ability to be trained are attributes that are still harnessed by the military to this day. Throughout the twentieth century dogs were used to locate mines and concealed explosive devices. In this photograph, a military working dog completes a drill in Camp Bastion in Afghanistan in August 2012.
As both companions and workers, animals have played an integral part in conflicts across the world. Though their roles have changed over the past 100 years, our animal comrades will always have a part to play on the battlefield.
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