Animals at war over the past 100 years

From dogs and horses to bears and pigs, animals have accompanied men and women into combat throughout history. As modes of transport and communication, protectors and companions, they have fulfilled a variety of roles at war. In this video, we’re taking a look at seven of the top animals that have fought and worked alongside humans on the battlefield, from pigeons to elephants, 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.

Thanks for watching – don’t forgot to like and subscribe to IWM’s YouTube channel for more videos like this and much more. There were loads of animals that we didn’t have time to cover in this episode – if you have a favourite, tell us the story in the comments below.

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