He’d walk about on the top of a 12 inch turret when the 12 inch gun was firing… His fur would stand right, completely up on end. He’d just look round and see what was happening; he’d never move…

Animals have played a role in armed conflict throughout history, and the First World War was no different. Millions of horses were used by all the combatant nations. They transported men, supplies and equipment, and pulled vehicles and guns. British private Aneurin Williams described the risks horses ran when carrying ammunition at the front.

I’d taken ammo now, up the battery. I was the last to get loaded up so, therefore, I’d be the last to get unloaded so in that time elapse, all the other drivers had gone. Well, he started shelling the battery with whizz-bangs. I thought, ‘Well here’s out of this.’ So I goes, like, as fast as I could up the track but he seemed to follow me until at last he dropped two right by my two horses and knocked the horses down and me in front of them. They got scrambled up and left me on the ground and went down the track. So I made a dive, now, there was a trench handy – he was shelling all the time – and I dives into this trench and I hangs in there until he stops. I goes to find my horses now, down the track, and the blood was pouring out of Rufus. Old Kitty, the horse, she wasn’t so bad. But now, there was a place down the track, a little unit of the veterinary corps. So I took old Rufus there and he said, ‘Oh, no good.’ So he shot him.

Casualty rates among horses were high. It was, therefore, no surprise that the animals were highly prized – as this anonymous Canadian despatch rider discovered.

I was a despatch rider for the Canadian cavalry it was my duty to carry messages from our headquarters along the lines to our different squadrons and troops where they happened to be situated. They didn’t give a damn about the despatch rider; it was the horse they were mostly interested in. Our old imperial sergeants used to tell us that it didn’t cost anything to get silly blighters like us into the Army, but it cost money to buy the horses!

Whilst serving in Palestine, Australian trooper L Pollock found a slightly unconventional use for his horse.

You just laid on the desert like a dog with your horse and I’ve seen men in the midday, camped and lying right under the horse. It was the only bit of shade you had was the shade that your horse made for you and the beauty of those horses were you’d see lines and lines and lines of men maybe five hundred men lined up, about in four lines one behind the other. Maybe you were anything from eight to ten feet apart, I’ve seen men off saddle, put their heads under the saddle and lie between those horses and neither horse would move backwards or forwards. And you’d see lines and lines of men camped in amongst lines and lines of horses and I’ve never known of any man being trodden on.

Many of the men who regularly dealt with horses became very attached to them. British NCO Henry Reimann’s comrade was so close to his horse, he put its life before his own.

We’d left headquarters and were on our horses going back to the transport lines when suddenly Potter said, ‘Gas!’ And it was gas and the two of us were gassed. But Potter, paying attention first of all to his horse, got far more a bigger dose than I did. We had gas masks to put on horses if we were in gas; he put his on first thereby getting more gas than he otherwise would have done. But he saved his horse; Potter’s first thought was for his horse, not for himself.

At sunset a mule team hauls supplies to British positions on the 'Birdcage Line' in the hills near Salonika, 1915.
A mule team hauling supplies to British positions in the hills, Salonika, 1915. © IWM (Q 31593)

Mules were also put to work, transporting men and supplies. James Goodson of the Royal Field Artillery found that this could be problematic.

On a march, if you had – they tried all sorts of ways to do it. They mixed mules up with horses in a team, for instance you might have the leading two would be mules; then two horses and two horses in a six-horse team – or in this case a four horse team and a two donkey team. Well at a walk, a mule is faster than a horse; but at a trot, he’s slower so that you always had a mix up. Didn’t matter how you done it, you couldn’t avoid a mix up. It was a mistake that was made, but I suppose it was unavoidable. You wanted horses and you got mules and you never knew what was going to happen to them. So unreliable, you never knew what was going to happen to them.

But for NCO Harry Forrester, the mules he worked with on the Western Front were lifesavers.

On one occasion one of them saved me from disaster. Coming up to the line we crossed a good stout wooden bridge – a beautiful bridge it was. And when we were coming back, I always brought up the rear of the column to keep everybody moving on you know, all of a sudden the head of the column stopped. I rode up forward to see what it was all about. The lead driver was thrashing this mule but he wouldn’t go. I remember that mule’s number, 141. He was thrashing it and it wouldn’t go. I thought to myself, ‘This is queer; there’s a reason for this.’ So I walked along this bridge and sure enough, smack in the middle of the bridge was gone. Jerry had dropped a nice shell – a 5.9” – right in the middle of the bridge and this mule had scented it and he wouldn’t go. And that is the truth.

In the Middle East and Egypt, camels had a number of uses. British officer Donald Penrose recalled their role during operations around Gaza in 1917.

Water, that used to come up on camels at various stages. The camel would carry a thing called a fantassi, one each side of him, and he would carry either 10 gallons or 12 and a half in these sort of tank things on either side of the camel. And it was a big thing with a screw cap in the middle and so your water used to come up on this. Another thing they did with camels, they had a sort of a thing called a cacolet. It was a sort of stretcher, one each side of the camel, and they used to put wounded people on them. It must’ve been extremely painful and rather dangerous, I should think. But that’s about all they had to carry wounded at that time, until they did later have sand carts and things. But I felt very sorry for these chaps, this camel business. They weren’t very gentle riding I suppose, these convoys with these wounded on them.

Camels could prove tricky to ride. Wireless operator Edgar Woolley remembered the difficulty he had dismounting from a runaway camel while he was based in Palestine in late 1917.

Eventually the camel got to the crowd of his companions round the water troughs and dived in amongst them, pushed his way in. I was thankful to come to rest but wasn’t prepared for the next part of the performance. I’d no idea which part of the camel was going to go down first and while I was wondering what the next move would be, down he went on his front haunches! I was just in the act of doing a front somersault over his head in amongst a row of camel’s heads or in the water or wherever I was going to land I’d no idea…! When, thank goodness, down went his rear quarters and I was saved. I immediately did a jump off that camel’s back. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere near a camel since…

Animals were also used to carry messages. Both pigeons and dogs were trained for this purpose. British officer Arthur Hemsley was asked to set up a pigeon school in 1917. He explained how the system worked.

They came 40 miles an hour straight from the front. And of course, you see, you always sent either two males or two females, you see. Never a male and a female otherwise they merely stop and make a home together and breed. But they always came back because they’d all got, especially the females… A pair of good females was the very best thing to send because they’d got squabs behind they were feeding in the loft. And they’d come back at 40 miles an hour from the front line; they’d jump into the trap. The moment they stepped on the trap it rang a bell. The pigeon man was there beside in the tent or wherever he was living, rushed in; took the bird out; took off this message and then he’d ring up and a despatch rider would rush this to the intelligence. Then the intelligence would read this message – some of it quite interesting perhaps – they’d been able to pick up.

As well as carrying messages on land, pigeons were used when men were stranded at sea. F Silwood of the Royal Naval Air Service sent carrier pigeons when his seaplane’s engine cut out.

We were lucky to get on the sea to start with. We made a sort of pancake landing against a big wave and we got down. We released our pigeons. The trouble was it was blowing so hard that the pigeons wouldn’t leave the aeroplane. So we threw everything we had almost at them – I threw my last half crown at them! They eventually got back to the loft and a half crown was never better spent, because 16 hours afterwards we were picked up. We were in a pretty sorry state by then I can assure you!

Pigeons were sometimes the only reliable way of getting vital messages through. But not everyone was a fan of them, as British NCO Harold Mayhall discovered.

Well in the 20th of September battle, we took some pigeons up and we had them. We were in a trench there for about three days and we had these pigeons. You were told not to keep them too long so we, I think we’d two and we let one go. And the silly thing just went out and it perched on the parapet and we were thinking surely somebody would be firing up and there it was on the parapet. We kept throwing bits of soil at it to try and make it go and in the end it got up and went right towards the German lines round and round and back over. One of our fellows said, ‘I wish I was like that! To get out of here!’

A former London double-decker bus (B.2125), camouflage painted, used as a travelling loft for carrier-pigeons. Pernes, 26 June 1918. Pigeons returning to the loft at the top of the bus.
A former London motor-bus camouflage painted and used as a travelling loft for carrier-pigeons, Pernes, June 1918. Pigeons returning to the loft at the top of the bus. © IWM (Q 9000)

Dogs were trained to carry messages, too. After setting up a pigeon school, Arthur Hemsley was tasked with doing the same for messenger dogs.

The next thing was the old colonel turned to me and said, ‘Hemsley, it’s dogs this time.’ I said, ‘Dogs?’ He said, ‘Yes. Headquarters are going to send 48 dogs with the men that go with, three dogs to a man, and you’ve got to deal with them.’ So I went to a little village, Vignacourt; found some ground there; had it wired in; put my dog men in there with their dogs. Whereupon the men of Vignacourt came and complained bitterly because they barked all night and kept all the village awake. So I had to uplift them from there and put them well away in the woods where they were no trouble to anybody. They were a very happy crowd there. They fed the dogs on fresh cut horse meat generally, from horses killed in battle. And the dogs were quite useful, too. They were taken up the line, of course, and a message put on them. And then off you’d go home and they’d come back to their handler who was waiting for them at the headquarters for them to come back.

Animals were also used to protect humans from danger. British private Harry Baker was carried to safety by a donkey after he was wounded at Gallipoli in May 1915.

Well I lay there and I didn’t quite know what to do. Well I thought, ‘I must do something.’ So I gave myself a push off and I went bumpity bumpity right down to the bottom of the ravine over dead men, and rifles, all kinds of things and bush, all the way right down to the bottom. At the bottom you were almost as safe as houses, except for shrapnel. A New Zealander he picked me up, he dressed my wounds. He put me on a donkey with which he was taking the wounded down the Shrapnel Valley to the ships on the shore there. He took me down on the donkey to the beach. That was the best donkey ride I ever had, you can gamble on that!

Animals were not kept in war zones just to work; many provided companionship as pets and mascots. British gunner William Towers had a pet dog at one point during his service on the Western Front.

I had a little, a lovely little dog that come and attached itself to me and it used to sleep at my foot. She laid on my feet in the night I thought it was lovely. When I got up she went, she came and I went all over with her. Then one day I had to go out somewhere for a message somewhere. When I come back she’d had a pup. My god! And all the lads they all idolised this pup and I thought, ‘Ooh, if I go on leave that pup’s going home with me.’But unfortunately when I went out one day, I come back and pup had gone. One of the fellows had gone on leave, he’d taken it home with him!

British officer John Wedderburn-Maxwell found that the front line was too dangerous for his unit’s pet kitten.

Well we had a great time at Norwich and one day one of my signallers turned up with a little kitten with a lovely white face and white breast to it. We called it Dublin. And that kitten went overseas with us and stayed with the guns the whole war – with the battery the whole war – with the guns right up to the Battle of the Somme, when we said it was too dangerous for Dublin.

Rats were the scourge of the trenches – but for NCO A. Durrant they became pets.

When we were billeted in this farmhouse, we were – there were about half a dozen of us – in the loft, which had a beautiful soft bed of hay. And we were very, very comfortable. But a couple of rats we noticed in the rafters. We became quite friendly with them they used to come down and we used to give them morsels of food. They became quite pets. Probably the people, the soldiers who were there before us had got accustomed to those two rats, you see.

Many ships kept mascots. Cats were the most traditional of these but, as Gilbert Adshead of HMS Lord Nelson recalled, there could be many others besides.

We had a black and a tabby cat. Now, the strange thing about the black cat was, gunfire never worried him a bit. He’d walk about on the top of a 12 inch turret when the 12 inch gun was firing… His fur would stand right, completely up on end. He’d just look round and see what was happening, and never move. The tabby cat was terror-stricken. It was a long time before we found where he used to hide. It’s obvious that hundreds of men couldn’t have a pet each, but a man could make an application for permission to have his dog on board. We had several pets. We had a pigeon; a couple of canaries; a black cat; a white cat; a bulldog, who was the mascot of the football team; a Manchester Terrier, a lady, who eventually begat herself a family when we were refitting and brought them on board as well; and we had early, at the beginning of the war, we had a goat. Oh and we had a monkey. He was a nice fellow, old Jacko…

One of the more unusual animals to become a British ship’s mascot was a pig, from the German cruiser SMS Dresden. Edward Pullen explained how this came about as his ship HMS Glasgow closed on the Dresden in March 1915.

All at once, a signalman shouted out, ‘There she is, sir!’ She was so camouflaged that we hadn’t noticed her, see. Of course in we went to her. And he must’ve put something in each magazine, ‘cos she exploded in four parts, see, then down she went. Well then a pig, a pig was aboard her, and it swam to our ship! And we – it was only a small pig – they’d captured it from somewhere, see. After we had this pig aboard, it grew up to be a good, big-sized one. Ended up at the gunnery school [Whale Island Gunnery School, Portsmouth]; sold for £2,000 for the Red Cross, you know.

Animals could be unpredictable. NCO Edward Glendinning remembered being inspected by a horse-mounted King George V in 1915.

He rode along the first three or four ranks and then crossed the road and around the other three or four ranks the other side, speaking to an officer here and there, you know. Our instructions from the beginning had been that, at the conclusion of the parade, we were to put our caps on the points of our fixed bayonets and wave and cheer. So, of course that was what we did – ‘Hip, Hip, Hooray!’ Well, the king’s horse reared and he fell off. He seemed to slide off and of course the second ‘Hip, Hip’ fizzled out. It was quite a fiasco and you should have seen the confusion as these other high-ranking officers hurriedly tried to dismount to go to the king’s assistance. They got him up and the last we saw of him was being hurriedly driven away in… I don’t know whether it was a field ambulance or a staff car.

Animals in war faced the same risks as humans. High numbers were wounded and killed. Jim Crow regularly worked with animals as a signaller in the Royal Field Artillery.

The mules used to scream, you know, when they got wounded and one thing and another, they were worse than the men in a way. Of course if they were too bad you used to put a revolver bullet through their brain, like. You hear very little about the horses but my God… That used to trouble me more than the men in some respects. Because we knew – well we presumably knew – what we were there for, but them poor devils didn’t, did they? No, scores and scores of ‘em…

Veterinary care was crucial. Walter Cousins, of the Machine Gun Corps, had a brief period of training in animal welfare in 1916.

I had three months at a veterinary school at Sunnybank. That was in training in animal management; packing and loading; and minor care of the animals. Such as, if you’ve got a horse with chipped knees, well you’ve got to know how to deal with it and give it first aid, as it were. There’s a right and a wrong way. One wrong way is, if you’ve got a horse with chipped knees, the very old fashioned way was to get some kind of grease and with a piece of gun powder and just smooth that on it. That used to heal it up quicker than anything, but that’s not the official way. That was an old soldier’s way, really. But, you put a bandage on it, just as you would a human being, until it got healed up a bit.

As both companions and workers, animals were an integral part of the First World War. When they were harmed, the men who worked closely with them couldn’t help but be affected – as officer George Jameson recalled.

Every animal had a pack and carried six rounds aboard – three in each side. And they went up like a string of camels, you see, with an NCO in charge and drivers. One of our first-line wagons, the driver had a couple of beautiful mules he called Jackie and Jenny. And he was absolutely, you know, he kept those animals in sparkling condition, and they knew him alright, you know. Well on one occasion, taking up a column of ammunition like that, one of them got killed. And, do you know, he got his other mule away and he came back, stripped all the gear off the other one and just sat down at the side and just wept. Absolutely wept. And do you know it was really pathetic, it was most touching…

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

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