Animals were used in the First World War on an unprecedented scale. Horses were certainly the most important animals in the war effort, but numerous other animals played their part, and particularly pigeons and dogs.
The front required consistent supplies of munitions and machinery, and the transport of large bodies of men and equipment meant that animals had an essential role to play as beasts of burden.
By World War Two, many of the supply roles had become mechanised, but World War One retained animal solutions to many of these logistical problems.
Horses and cavalry
While the romantic ideals of gallant mass cavalry charges were soon proven ineffective by rapid firing rifles and machine guns, they still had a major role to play in reconnaissance and logistics, along with of plugging advances quickly.
As artillery became more powerful, battlefields were increasingly ravaged, often turning No Man’s Land into a largely impassable quagmire of mud.
On the first day of the Battle of Verdun, 7,000 horses were killed by shelling.
In the Middle Eastern campaign, the war remained fluid, and wasn’t locked down by trench warfare in the same way, due to practical conditions of environment – building trenches in sand was impossible.
Often camels replaced the roles of horses as cavalry mounts when men needed to move quickly.
Escalating warfare drove Britain and France to import horses and mules from overseas in staggering numbers.
The Army Veterinary Corps (AVC) attended to over 2.5 million animal admissions, and 80% of these horses were able to return to the front.
By the end of the war, 800,000 horses and mules were in service in the British army. That total can be broken down roughly as so:
- Supply Horses – 220,187
- Supply Mules – 219,509
- Riding Horses – 111,171
- Gun Horses – 87,557
- Cavalry – 75,342
With so many horses enlisted in the war effort, workers at home were forced to look to alternative, more exotic sources of animal labour.
Elephants were used to transport munitions in Hamburg, and a circus elephant called Lizzie was used for the same job in Sheffield.
Pigeons and communication
Pigeons were another multi-purpose animal in the war effort. In an age of under-developed telephone connections and battlefield radio, they served in important roles for relaying messages.
After the Defence of the Realm Act in 1916, killing, wounding or molesting a homing pigeon in Britain was punishable with 6 months imprisonment.
One Pigeon was named ‘Cher Ami’ (Dear Friend) and was awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palme for her assistance in saving 194 American soldiers trapped behind German lines in 1918.
She made it back to her loft despite having been shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, covered in blood and with a leg hanging only by a tendon.
Some pigeons were equipped with cameras to survey the battlefields.
Small, quick and reliable, pigeons proved excellent on reconnaissance missions.
Dogs and cats
These normally domesticated animals served as logistics assistants, medical assistants and as companions to fighting men.
They carried supplies so that a casualty could treat himself, or they simply provided companionship to the dying in their final moments.
Sergeant Stubby started out as the mascot of the 102nd Infantry, 26th Yankee Division, and ended up becoming a full-fledged combat dog.
Brought up to the front lines, he was injured in a gas attack early on, which gave him a sensitivity to gas that later allowed him to warn his soldiers of incoming gas attacks by running and barking.
He helped find wounded soldiers, and even cornered and captured a German spy who was trying to map allied trenches.
Individual regiments often had their own animal mascot.
The First World War is rightly remembered for the enormous loss of human life, but it should not be forgotten that many animals were also required to make that ultimate sacrifice.