Storytelling – animals in the First World War
From cats and dogs to camels and pigeons, as many as 16 million animals served during the First World War. Between them, they fulfilled a diverse range of roles and were a vital part of the Allied war effort.
Horses had served in countless previous wars, most notably carrying soldiers as part of cavalry units. During the First World War, such cavalries were rendered less effective by a combination of battlefield conditions (mud, trenches) and technological advancements (particularly the rise of machine guns and tanks). Even so, cavalry units played important parts at the Battleof Mons,in the Mesopotamian Campaign and in Palestine.
Horses, donkeys and mules also fulfilled crucial wartime roles as beasts of burden. Tthey hauled artillery guns, provisions, munitions and other equipment to the front line, and also ferried injured soldiers to temporary hospitals. In the Middle East, horses were joined on the battlefield by the 4,800 animals that made up the Imperial Camel Corps.
Millions of dogs were put to military use during the conflict: as guard dogs, warning soldiers when an unfamiliar presence was approaching; and even as casualty dogs, carrying medical equipment and water to wounded soldiers on the battlefield.
Dogs also transported messages – as, famously, did tens of thousands of pigeons, which relayed messages from the front line or from naval ships and submarines back to headquarters. One brave pigeon, named Cher Ami, was even given the Croix de Guerre medal by the US government for delivering a message that helped save the lives of nearly 200 soldiers.
In the trenches, cats served as both pets and rat-catchers, while some troops kept chickens in order to enjoy fresh eggs. Rabbits, dogs, foxes, golden eagles and goats were all kept as pets or mascots by Allied forces. Notably, a black bear called Winnipeg, served as a mascot to a Canadian regiment before becoming a resident of London Zoo and indirectly inspiring AA Milne’s stories about Winnie-the-Pooh. However, perhaps the most unusual mascot was retained by a South African regiment: Jackie, a chacma baboon.