National Geographic News
Photo of a man and a horse in France wearing gas masks.

An American soldier demonstrates the use of gas masks for men and horses in France in 1918.

Photograph by US Navy Bureau of Medicine & Surgery, Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Simon Worrall

for National Geographic

Published July 28, 2014

Tucked between two lanes of traffic at Brook Gate, in London's leafy Hyde Park, two heavily laden mules, cast in bronze, trudge terrified but steadfast across an imaginary battlefield. In front of them, carved into a long wall of white Portland stone, is a frieze of other animals—an elephant, a camel, dogs, carrier pigeons—with an inscription that reads, "They had no choice."

The sacrifice of the nearly ten million men who died from 1914 to 1918 will always remain the focus of our remembrance. But on the eve of the hundredth anniversary of World War I, we can also reflect on the fact that animals played a big part—and paid a high price. Indeed, throughout history no other conflict has seen as many animals deployed as the "war to end all wars."

The film adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel War Horse vividly captured the plight of horses. "Eight million horses died on all sides in the First World War," says Jilly Cooper, author of Animals in War and the moving force behind the memorial in Park Lane.

"They died in battle and shellfire but also from exposure and disease. They were so hungry they ate their rugs and died choking on the buckles. Many drowned in the mud."

With so many horses at work in France, on the home front alternatives had to be found to haul heavy loads. In Sheffield, for instance, a circus elephant named Lizzie carried munitions and machinery around the city.

On the battlefront, it wasn't just horses. Pigeons carried messages, oxen hauled guns, and even glowworms—collected by the thousands in jars—were pressed into service. Soldiers used them to illuminate messages and maps in the blacked-out trenches.

Photo of Stubby, the WWI war dog.
Stubby, mascot of the U.S. Army's 102nd Infantry, 26th Division, became a media sensation after he saved lives in the Great War. Shown here in November 1924, Stubby visited the White House and met three presidents.
Photograph by Bettmann, Corbis

The Dogs of War

Some 20,000 dogs did duty for the Allies, carrying equipment on their backs and messages concealed in their collars, laying telephone lines, and distributing first aid kits.

At the Battle of Verdun, Satan, a black greyhound-collie mix, saved a besieged French garrison by delivering a message, despite being severely wounded by gunfire.

One of the most courageous canines was Stubby, a U.S. combat dog. (See: Sergeant Stubby, by Ann Bausum.) A Boston bull terrier cross with bug eyes and a short, stubby tail that gave him his name, he'd never have made it at Westminster or Crufts.

He started life as a stray, roaming the streets of New Haven, Connecticut. One morning in 1917, he wandered into Yale Field, where a group of soldiers was being trained. Pvt. J. Robert "Bob" Conroy took a shine to him, and a bond was formed. Conroy prepared to ship out to the killing fields of France with the 102nd Infantry, 26th Division, known as the Yankee Division.

It was strictly against Army regulations to take pets on a troop ship, but Conroy, in a show of Yankee ingenuity, enlisted the aid of a crew member on the U.S.S. Minnesota who hid the dog in an engine-room coal bin. When they reached France, Conroy carried Stubby off the ship concealed in his overcoat.

The dog won the hearts of Conroy's unit, and even his commanding officer, and soon sported a tag on his leather collar:

STUBBY
102nd INF
26th DIV

Ringing those words was the name J. R. Conroy, with his service number, 63254.

From the division's first combat experience—on February 5, 1918, defending battle lines along the Chemin des Dames highway—to the closing days of the war, Stubby saved many lives.

He learned to identify the smell of mustard gas and detect the high-pitched whistle of shells, warning the unit of danger by barking or nipping at the heels of sleeping soldiers.

When men were cut down in no-man's-land, Stubby was lifted out of the trench and sent to find them. Once he happened upon a soldier sleeping belowground in a dugout who hadn't heard the topside alarm. Stubby stirred him awake, saving him from serious injury from the gas that regularly settled in the underground network of tunnels and chambers. (See: "The Hidden World of the Great War" in National Geographic magazine.)

After Stubby was seriously wounded by shrapnel in the Battle of Seicheprey, he was operated on and later returned to duty in one of the most fiercely contested areas on the western front: the Marne.

Following the Allied retaking of Château-Thierry, the women of the town made him a coat of chamois leather, which was soon hung with numerous medals, among them a Purple Heart, the Republic of France Grande War Medal, and the New Haven World War I Veterans Medal.

Back in the United States, Stubby became a media sensation. He marched in veterans parades, met Presidents Wilson, Coolidge, and Harding, and even appeared on the vaudeville stage. His showpiece was a salute, which he performed by sitting up on his haunches and raising a paw.

Stubby died on April 4, 1926. Taxidermied, he stands, adorned with his medals, on display at the National Museum of American History, on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Almost a century after Conroy's World War I service, his eldest grandson, Curtis Deane, recalls that his grandfather was "very quiet" about what he did during the war.

"He would just say, 'I was with Stubby.'"

Stubby was a jack-of-all-trades, but "cadaver dogs" were specialists, sent out to survey a battlefield and signal those among the fallen who were still alive, so that medics could quickly attend to them.

German combat dogs were sometimes used for less noble purposes—as canine suicide bombers, with dynamite strapped to their backs that was detonated by remote control.

In all, the Germans deployed 6,000 dogs, mostly as meldehunde—messenger dogs. The preferred breeds were Dobermans, Airedales, Rottweilers, and, most especially, German shepherds.

Photo of Austro-Hungarian soldiers with carrier pigeons during WWI.
Austro-Hungarian soldiers conduct patrols with carrier pigeons, the most secure means of sending messages.
Photograph by Berliner Verlag, Archiv picture alliance/ZB/Corbis

The Wings of War

A carrier pigeon named Cher Ami would, like Satan, also become a legend at Verdun. Donated by the British to the U.S. Signal Corps, he served with the 77th Infantry Division. The 77th, stranded behind enemy lines, was being pounded by the Germans—but also by friendly fire from unknowing U.S. troops.

Two pigeons were sent out with messages urging the Americans to stop, but both birds were shot down by German troops. So Lt. Col. Charles Whittlesey, the 77th's commanding officer, wrote one last plea, which he attached to Cher Ami's leg.

In the air, Cher Ami too came under enemy fire. Blinded and covered in blood from wounds to the breast, he nevertheless made it the 25 miles to headquarters, delivering the message: "For heaven's sake, stop it." As a result, 194 men were saved.

After the war, the plucky pigeon received France's highest military award, the Croix de Guerre, and today a taxidermied Cher Ami stands in the National Museum of American History.

Photo of an elephant in Berlin during WWI.
An elephant donated to the German Army during World War I moves logs under the supervision of soldiers.
Photograph by Verlag, Archiv/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Stratagems Devious and Diabolical

The use of animals in war is nothing new. Some 2,500 years ago the king of Kadesh—a city-state in modern-day Syria—loosed a mare in heat in the vicinity of stallions pulling the chariot of his enemy, Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III, causing mayhem and giving rise to this verse in the "Song of Solomon": You are as exciting, my darling / As a mare among Pharaoh's stallions.

The Persians and the Romans—most famously, Hannibal—deployed elephants as troop carriers and battering rams.

During the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) Chinese soldiers are said to have used monkeys as incendiary devices in a battle between rebels from Yangzhou Province and the imperial army. The monkeys were wrapped in straw, dipped in oil, then set on fire and driven into the enemy camp, where they immolated tents and other flammable materials.

In World War II, men from the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a British special forces unit created by Winston Churchill in 1940, placed dead rats mined with plastic explosive near German coal plants, in the hope that boiler men would shovel them into furnaces, causing explosions that would shut the plants down.

Meanwhile on the other side of the globe, the U.S Army invested two million dollars in a project using Mexican free-tailed bats to drop miniature incendiary devices on Japanese cities.

Credit Where It's Due

In today's increasingly remote-controlled conflicts, animals are playing a less active part. Fittingly, their past contributions are being acknowledged.

A monument to combat dogs was unveiled in 2013 at Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas.

In Britain, the Dickin Medal, created in 1943 in honor of social reformer and animal welfare pioneer Maria Dickin, is a special award for animal courage. Recipients include Gustav, a pigeon that brought the first news of the Normandy landings back to London, and Salty and Roselle, two Labrador guide dogs that helped their blind masters escape the twin towers on 9/11.

"I was so upset there was no memorial," recalls Jilly Cooper of her battle to secure funding for the World War I memorial in Hyde Park. "People said we should be honoring dead soldiers, not dead animals. But gradually we got the memorial organized and raised the funds. It's a beautiful thing."

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

19 comments
Grace Torgerson
Grace Torgerson

If animals really hated what they did they would run away!  They Love us!!! They would do anything for us! I know I would do anything for them, what about you? If you wouldn't make sacrifices for animals then why are you getting mad at people who actually use animals for good! They save lives, what do you do that benefits the world? Does anything that you have done even come close to risking your life for people you don't know? Because I know that I haven't done anything close to what animals have done for us. My dog that I gave to my great uncle is amazing! My great uncle has cancer and he really doesn't want to live, but because of Dodger he is still alive. Dodger loves him he sleeps with my great uncle every night and is able to run anywhere he wants, but he chooses to stay with my great uncle for both his benefit and the benefit of others. You need to understand that we are trying to save animals too! Look at the tigers, we are trying our best to save their population, but because people are greedy with their money they cannot save them because they don't have the funding. Look at yourself before you start blaming other people.

David Alan McPartland
David Alan McPartland

Animals do not knowingly have the free will to know what they are getting into. They can not volunteer. They are trained. Then they allow themselves naively to be (no choice) put in harms way mostly just because they want to please us and long for our companionship and love. I believe in using animals as tools (such as hunting or handicap service animals) as long as the animal gets something out of it (food and shelter and love) which is beneficial to the animal and man. But in such cases as war, the animal gets nothing out of it except shot at or worse (and maybe some medals which probably doesn't mean much to the animal) and probably would have preferred some food and affection. Do you think bomb stiffing dogs realize the dangers they face? No, they just want a tasty treat (handler's reward) that comes from the act of sniffing out explosives.

Harmony Crow
Harmony Crow

Animals are innocent life! They helped us now let's not turn our backs on them when in need! War, man's inhumanity to man. When will we ever learn?

Cynthia Jeff
Cynthia Jeff

This country any country using an animals gift of senses is SICK, CRUEL!!! Man chooses to go to WAR NOT ANIMALS.....

Darek Colaizzi-Smith
Darek Colaizzi-Smith

The sentence above makes it seem like Hannibal was Roman or Persian as opposed to Carthaginian. 

Rob Hutchins
Rob Hutchins

T. giobbi,


NatGeo is spending so much time talking about the war because it's the 100th anniversary of it's start. Please consult this link, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I if you have any more stupid questions.


Sincerely,

Rob Hutchins

christina Garcia
christina Garcia

Many people seem to forget that animals have helped in the history of men. Dogs, birds, even elephants and bats, as seen in the article, helped out the Germans, Americans, and French with the war. Birds flying through the skies sending messages between forts. Dogs, being trained to detect gas or have dynamite strapped to their bad in a canine suicide bomb. Every single animal included in the war is a hero itself, being loyal to their trainers. Never stopping once, through the pain and suffering that they may have gone through. They strive to please us, humans.


Animals seem to be forgotten through all the hardships. They are the ones in the front line doing everything that is told of them to. The ones that are being tested on to be an advantage to the enemy. Running into battle on horse, or having a dog bite your heel to make sure that you are safe when danger is on its way or even having a bat drop devices into cities. These living creatures deserve so much more than what we give them. Have you ever wondered what they think about? How they can sense something bad is going to happen? How the feel? If they feel pain more than humans can? They feel pain when they can’t please by doing job. This article has shown how great of an importance animals are in history to all the countries. How these animals involved helped men complete a task that very well may not be completed if they were not in the line of duty. Animals, all in all, are the ones that men can always count on, to say true to their word, the ones that will never leave your side. The ones that go through excruciating pain to get to where they have to because they want to please our desires for them. They are not just a living species on this earth, they are the silent heroes behind a war, weather it is a loss or victory.

t. giobbi
t. giobbi

why has NatGeo been spending so much time talking not just about war, which arguably destroys the landscape they claim they want to get people interested in, but also about the many ways other species were exploited by armed forces in the process? can we be done with this soon? i know that there are many circles of people that appreciates these stories, i'm not knocking them, but this isn't the venue for it. it reeks of glorifying war and we get enough of that in every other avenue of american culture. 

Nilesh Kakade
Nilesh Kakade

Very interesting! Now, it's pretty obvious that these animals played a major part in shaping the outcome of the war. A matter of victory or defeat -- they always carried out the commands by their trainers. One can imagine the pain they must have gone through while discharging their honorable duties on the field. Poor (things) they can't talk... They all deserve a guard of honor!

Grace Torgerson
Grace Torgerson

@David Alan McPartland I don't think all animals want is food because they are smart enough to know. My rabbit that died a week ago would listen to my commands and all I gave him was love. I taught him to run up and down a board and his reward was me petting him and sating, "Good boy Smokey!" He would continually whenever I was out there run up and down that board just because he loved me and wanted to please. Just like us we don't just want food we want a relationship with people and want to be social. Animals do things to please their owners because they have a relationship with them. You don't get things for people just to get food do you? No you get them things so that you can grow deeper in your relationship and because you love them. No offense, but you are very wrong about animals. Haven't you ever had a relationship with an animal? If you had than why did you write that?

Grace Torgerson
Grace Torgerson

@Cynthia Jeff ! If animals really hated what they did they would run away!  They Love us!!! They would do anything for us! I know I would do anything for them, what about you? If you wouldn't make sacrifices for animals then why are you getting mad at people who actually use animals for good! They save lives, what do you do that benifits the world? Does anything that you have done even come close to risking your life for people you don't know? Because I know that I haven't done anything close to what animals have done for us. My dog that I gave to my great uncle is amazing! My great uncle has cancer and he really doesn't want to live, but because of Dodger he is still alive. Dodger loves him he sleeps with my great uncle every night and is able to run anywhere he wants, but he chooses to stay with my great uncle for both his benefit and the benefit of others. 

t. giobbi
t. giobbi

screw you too. where do i send you to post further rude and stupid comments?

Grace Torgerson
Grace Torgerson

@christina Garcia If animals really hated what they did they would run away!  They Love us!!! They would do anything for us! I know I would do anything for them, what about you? If you wouldn't make sacrifices for animals then why are you getting mad at people who actually use animals for good! They save lives, what do you do that benifits the world? Does anything that you have done even come close to risking your life for people you don't know? Because I know that I haven't done anything close to what animals have done for us. My dog that I gave to my great uncle is amazing! My great uncle has cancer and he really doesn't want to live, but because of Dodger he is still alive. Dodger loves him he sleeps with my great uncle every night and is able to run anywhere he wants, but he chooses to stay with my great uncle for both his benefit and the benefit of others. 

Niki Rhodes
Niki Rhodes

Because you need to remember these horrible wars to honour the sacrifices made so we can have peace. Other countries, who were not apart of these wars, can also learn from our mistakes. Nat Geo is a world wide production, and is not just about nature, but about history and science. This is our history, respect it please.

William Hardy
William Hardy

@t. giobbi This is EXACTLY the venue - National Geographic is dedicated to just these stories - perhaps you would rather Fox News took up the cause. They SO ACCURATELY report on everything else.....

Tanmay Sharma
Tanmay Sharma

@Nilesh Kakade They deserve the best. But its sad to know that these innocent animals are being used for such purposes because of sick human greed and war. 

Grace Torgerson
Grace Torgerson

@Niki Rhodes Love it! I have some stuff to add,

 If animals really hated what they did they would run away!  They Love us!!! They would do anything for us! I know I would do anything for them, what about you? If you wouldn't make sacrifices for animals then why are you getting mad at people who actually use animals for good! They save lives, what do you do that benifits the world? Does anything that you have done even come close to risking your life for people you don't know? Because I know that I haven't done anything close to what animals have done for us. My dog that I gave to my great uncle is amazing! My great uncle has cancer and he really doesn't want to live, but because of Dodger he is still alive. Dodger loves him he sleeps with my great uncle every night and is able to run anywhere he wants, but he chooses to stay with my great uncle for both his benefit and the benefit of others. 

t. giobbi
t. giobbi

you had me until your last sentence but thanks anyway.

Grace Torgerson
Grace Torgerson

@Tanmay Sharma @Nilesh Kakade If animals really hated what they did they would run away!  They Love us!!! They would do anything for us! I know I would do anything for them, what about you? If you wouldn't make sacrifices for animals then why are you getting mad at people who actually use animals for good! They save lives, what do you do that benifits the world? Does anything that you have done even come close to risking your life for people you don't know? Because I know that I haven't done anything close to what animals have done for us. My dog that I gave to my great uncle is amazing! My great uncle has cancer and he really doesn't want to live, but because of Dodger he is still alive. Dodger loves him he sleeps with my great uncle every night and is able to run anywhere he wants, but he chooses to stay with my great uncle for both his benefit and the benefit of others. 

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