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.
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.
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:
“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. On 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.
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.
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.
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.
Updated: 16 October 2020
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