During World War I, the British and Allied forces enlisted millions of animals to serve and often die alongside their armies.
Eight million horses, mules and donkeys died in WW I. They were used to transport ammunition and supplies to the front. They died not just from the horrors of warfare; surprisingly, only 25% of horse deaths were caused by enemy action. The biggest killer was “debility”, a condition caused by exposure to the elements, hunger and illness. Mules have tremendous stamina in extreme climates and over the most difficult terrain, they served courageously in the freezing mud on the Western Front, and toiling unflinchingly in the oppressive heat of Burma and Tunisia.
There weren’t enough horses in Britain to meet the demand, so over 1,000 horses a week were shipped from North America. By November 1918, nearly 19,000 soldiers served preparing horses to be sent to war across three continents.
Dogs’ innate intelligence and devotion were valued and used in wars throughout the 20th century. As the network of trenches spread throughout the Western Front during WW I, so did the number of dogs. Both the German and Allied sides used dogs on the battlefield.
Many different breeds of dog were utilized but the most popular were medium-sized, intelligent and highly trainable breeds such as Doberman Pinschers and German Shepherds. Terriers were trained to hunt and kill rats in the trenches.
Sentry dogs were used to patrol. They were trained to bark or growl when they perceived an unknown or suspect presence in a camp or military base.
Quiet, disciplined scout dogs were used on foot patrol, used for their keen sense of smell to detect the enemy, often up to a half mile away. Unlike sentry dogs, scout dogs were trained to be silent; to stiffen their bodies, raise their hackles and point their tail if the enemy was nearby.
Mercy dogs were trained to locate the wounded on battlefields. Equipped with medical supplies so that soldiers could to tend to their own injuries, mercy dogs would remain with wounded soldiers, comforting them as they died.
Messenger dogs were highly reliable in dangerous jobs. Running more quickly than a person, particularly over rough terrain, these dogs were less visible and less of a target for snipers.
Dogs were also adopted mascots. Sergeant Stubby, a bull terrier, was adopted as a mascot by the 102nd Infantry, 26th Division of the U.S. Army. When the regiment were training at Yale in 1917 a stray puppy roamed into their exercises. That puppy who watched them run drills ended up on the Western Front in France, participating in 21 battles. He is the only dog to rise the rank of sergeant.
Private J. Robert Conroy took ownership of the dog and named him Stubby. Stubby learned the bugle calls, the drills, and how to salute on command by raising his right paw. When Conroy and the 102nd Infantry were deployed to the front lines, Stubby was smuggled onboard the ship.
Stubby was exposed to mustard gas and machine guns on the Western Front. After a mustard gas attack left him sensitive to the gas, he learned to warn soldiers and prevented them from sleeping through future gas attacks.
He also went behind enemy lines and found wounded soldiers. He thwarted a German spy’s attempt to map the layout of the Allied trenches. He latched onto the leg of the spy and held him until American soldiers arrived. Stubby was later injured by a grenade, but he survived despite shrapnel in his chest and leg.
Sergeant Stubby was smuggled back into the USA by Conroy at the conclusion of the war. He met Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. He was presented with a gold medal for bravery by General John Pershing, the Commanding General of the United States. He was given a lifetime membership to the American Legion and the Y.M.C.A, where he could hang out with all the boys.
After Stubby went to doggie-heaven in 1926, he was given a half-page obituary in the failing New York Times. Later, a brick was installed at the Liberty Memorial, the nation’s official WW I memorial, that reads: “Sergeant Stubby / Hero Dog Of WWI / A Brave Stray”.
Sergeant Stubby moved to the Smithsonian National Museum of America History in 1956, where you can still visit him. He remains the most decorated dog in U.S. military history.
More than 100,000 pigeons served in WW I. They performed heroically and saved thousands of lives by carrying vital messages, sometimes over long distances, when other methods of communication were impossible. Flying at a mile a minute from the front line, from behind enemy lines, or from ships and airplanes, the birds would struggle on through all kinds of weather, even when severely wounded and exhausted, to carry their messages. Other methods failed, but pigeons had a 95% success rate.
With a gaping chest wound and one leg hanging by a single tendon, one determined courier managed to struggle for 50 miles and deliver the message before collapsing. She saved 194 soldiers from what became known as the U.S. Army’s “Lost Battalion”. Her name was Cher Ami, the bravest pigeon of them all. Cher Ami survived her battle wounds from November 1918 and even had a wooden leg made for her before dying a year later.
The Germans were so rattled by the pigeons, they brought hawks to the frontline. Some pigeons that dodged bullets and shellfire lost their lives to birds of prey.
The feathered fighters were among a 16 million-strong army of horses, mules, donkeys, dogs, cats and even elephants, camels and occasional monkey that help win the war.
Over 1,300 officers served as veterinary surgeons during the war to end all wars. There were also 27,000 soldiers serving in the Army Veterinary Corps, who supported the medical treatment of horses and dogs. A typical animal hospital could treat 2,000 animals at any one time.
100 years ago, at 11 am on November 11, 1918, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the war to end all war ended. Ironically, it was a war fought over for the Earth’s resources. These non-human casualties were true heroes.