THE BLOG

Animals in War: They Didn't Volunteer - They Had No Choice

06/11/2014 17:26 GMT | Updated 06/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Most of us find this time of year very emotional. From our own personal experiences and memories, hearing stories of war from our older relatives, visiting the incredibly moving poppies at the Tower of London, to our annual Sunday remembrance parades across the land. All of it helps us reflect deeply about how lucky we really are as a nation; and how it's all due to those brave heroes that fought - and still continue to fight - for us in every bloody battle, conflict, and terrible war.

But as well as the millions of human heroes that have given their lives for our freedom, do many of us ever consider those poor animals that also helped bring us peace, specifically employed by mankind for use in warfare? They didn't volunteer - they had no choice.

Famously horses always formed the cavalry, drawing heavy artillery, a phenomenally useful all-purpose and reliable method of transportation. But tragically eight million of them lost their lives during the Great War. Most died from disease, starvation, or exposure; one of man's most loyal servants reduced to shivering bags of skin and bones, even resorting to chewing on their own rugs for food.

In the deserts, mountains, and tropics, with much tougher terrain, camels and elephants were better suited, but not forgotten; just like those oxen, mules, and donkeys that carried supplies, arms, and our dead and wounded. Mules serving in the dense jungle in Burma even had their vocal cords severed, to ensure their braying would not betray Allied positions to the enemy.

Dogs also suffered high casualty rates as their excellent sensitivity to smell meant that they were employed to search for mines and trip-wires, commonly resulting in injury or death from resulting explosions. Some would rip their paws to shreds scrabbling through the rubble of bombed-out buildings looking for survivors or bodies.

Interestingly in recent years it would be extremely rare for a mine detection dog to be killed or injured in this way; mainly because the dogs are trained not to step on the mines, and the way they are worked is very strictly controlled. Usually once a dog has detected a mine it is trained to sit beside it as a sign to the handler that it has found something. Furthermore dogs are often not heavy enough to set off anti-tank or anti-personnel mines.

These days mine or improvised explosive device (IED)-clearance dogs serving teams of all nationalities are extremely well looked after, and deeply loved by their handlers. Not really surprising since the handlers life depends on the close bond they share with their faithful dog when working under these extremely stressful conditions.

Did you know that 'Para-dogs' were dropped behind enemy lines to assist with covert operations? And in the Soviet Army, dogs even had explosives strapped to their backs to be used as anti-tank weapons, trained by placing their food directly under tanks. The idea was that these dogs (who were apparently starved) would learn to associate tanks with food and would then proceed to run under any German tanks they saw to find a meal.

Unfortunately the Soviets vastly underestimated their dogs intelligence, as the first time the dogs were used instead of attacking the German tanks the dogs recognised the Russian tanks used in training and ran straight under them instead. After this catastrophic misjudgment the use of anti tank dogs was quickly and unsurprisingly dropped.

Unbelievably war isn't just about man against man supported by these animals. Were you aware that sometimes animals were even pitted against other animals? For example our brave carrier pigeons delivering crucial messages in both First and Second World Wars would suffer multiple attempts to prevent them reaching their destinations; German hawks were actually kept at the Pas de Calais waiting to attack our unwitting winged messengers.

Between the hawks, the bullets, and Mother Nature herself some 100,000 pigeons were killed between 1914 to 1918, and hose who survived limped home with oil-clogged feathers, shot-away wings, and ripped-open necks. The difference made by the successful ones was absolutely crucial.

Then there were the cats, used to control mice and rat populations on warships, and even canaries who would alert sappers to gas; and even in modern wartime dolphins and sea lions have been deployed to detect mines. Lastly the glow worms, by whose soft light World War I soldiers would read their maps in their last moments before going over the top.

We must never forget. Not them, nor anyone or anything else that has made unimaginable sacrifices for every single one of us alive today.

So please take the time to honour those animals who lost their lives for us warring humans; wear a purple poppy, and try to visit and pay your respects at London's beautiful Animals in War Memorial, Brook Gate, Park Lane. They often have Remembrance services honouring all these animals which, I know from experience, are both unique gatherings and unsurprisingly truly moving as well.