World War One Animal Heroes

A World War One horse wearing a gas mask

World War One Animal Heroes

When we think of World War I combatants, we remember the brave men and women who fought in the military and served in the medical corps. However, animals played an important role in the war as well.

Let’s examine the these brave animals who had no comprehension of what was occurring but obediently served their masters.

Horses

A World War One horse wearing a gas mask
Horses wore gas masks in World War One

Millions of horses and mules were used during the war. Most, however, did not serve in the cavalry. They were used to transport supplies and guns. Thousands of others transported soldiers.

So plentiful were the equines that armies had a veterinary corps.

An estimated eight million horses gave their lives during the war. Some were shot or gassed in battle, while others died of weather and disease.

In the Middle East, camels were used instead of the horses.

Dogs

A World War One dog wearing a gas mask
A World War One dog wearing a gas mask

Canines served in several capacities. They were guards and as messengers, and put to work carrying first-aid supplies, laying lines of cable, killing rats and alerting soldiers of danger.

One dog even reached the rank of sergeant. His name was Stubby, and he served with the U.S. Army. He had the ability to sense mustard gas and warn the troops, and he once attacked an enemy soldier, allowing the man to be taken prisoner. Stubby served in 17 battles over the course of 18 months and survived the war, although he was wounded on several occasions.

Stubby’s owner, Robert Conroy, kept a clipping in his scrapbook that described the incident like this:

Sergeant Stubby
Sergeant Stubby

“Over the top he went with the boys on many occasions, and the sight of the enemy was like a red flag to a bull. One one trip ‘over’ he sank his teeth in the seat of a fleeing Hun’s trousers and did not let go.  ‘Kamerad,’ howled the Hun; but Stubby paid no attention, hanging on until the foe laid down and gave up to the Yanks.”   

Sometimes dogs had no official capacity. They were simply companions, friends and mascots, providing comfort and a morale boost.

Pigeons

Homing pigeon equipped with a camera
Homing pigeon equipped with a camera

One hundred thousand homing pigeons carried messages and took aerial photographs. Their success rate was 95 percent.

One pigeon, Cher Ami, the last homing pigeon the unit had left alive, is credited in saving the lives of nearly 200 American soldiers during the Battle of the Argonne Forest. Cher Ami was sent to deliver a message to division headquarters 25 miles away.

Cher Ami flew through a rain of bullets. She arrived at HQ covered in blood. She had been shot in the chest, one leg was hanging by a tendon and she was blind in one eye, but she successfully delivered her message in under half an hour.

Cher Ami
Cher Ami, the famous homing pigeon hero

The note said, “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.”

The bird survived her wounds, but used a prosthetic leg for the rest of her life.

For her bravery delivering messages during the Battle of Verdun, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

Cher Ami is on display at the Smithsonian Institute near Sergeant Stubby.

Other Animals

A World War One soldier mounts a machine gun on an elephant's back
During World War One, local animals, like this elephant, were often pressed into war service

Cats, like dogs, served as companions and mascots. So did a bear, a koala, a baboon and a fox.

Bioluminescent European glowworms were used to illuminate dark trenches.

On the home front, elephants, requisitioned from zoos and circuses, took the place of horses plowing fields and pulling wagons.

Animals also served as a food source in nations faced with starvation.

So essential were animals to the war effort that special equipment was manufactured to protect them, including gas mask.

Other World War One animals can be viewed on my Pinterest board World War 1 in the Animals section.

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Updated: 16 October 2020
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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