Before 1914, wars had mostly been fought by cavalries (soldiers on horseback). Developments in technology meant that this type of fighting was rare during the First World War, because horses were easy targets for artillery and machine gun fire. Despite this, over 16 million animals served during the war in roles ranging from transport and communication to companionship. Every kind of animal was enlisted that could aid the war effort in some way.
Although cavalry charges were no longer the favoured way of fighting, millions of horses still had roles in the war. Uneven ground on the front line meant that vehicles could not always take supplies to where they were needed, so horses were often used to haul munitions, ambulances and wagons carrying food and equipment. By November 1918, the British army had almost 500,000 horses. They helped to distribute 34,000 tons of meat and 45,000 tons of bread every month, as well as tons of food for the horses themselves. Donkeys and mules were also used to pull heavy equipment, and even elephants were sometimes taken from circuses and zoos to pull heavy machinery.
Dogs were some of the most trusted and hardest workers, and they had quite a range of jobs. Doberman pinschers and German shepherds were popular due to their large size, trainability and agility (although German shepherds began to be called ‘Alsatians’ instead to avoid associations with the enemy). The German Army employed even more dogs than the British – around 30,000. Sentry dogs were trained to stay with one soldier or guard and to make warning sounds when they sensed a stranger nearby. Scout dogs were used to sniff out the enemy. Trained to be as quiet as possible, they walked with soldiers on patrol and gave silent signals such as raising their tails to let their soldiers know they sensed the enemy nearby. Some, known as casualty dogs, were trained to find wounded or dying soldiers on the battlefield. They carried medical equipment that injured soldiers could use to treat themselves, and they would stay with dying soldiers to keep them company. Messenger dogs were also popular; their speed and agility meant they were often faster and more reliable than machines or human messengers.
Carrier pigeons were also used as messengers. The pigeons were taken with troops as they advanced, and would be released with notes tied to them when a message needed to be taken back to base. Pigeons were considered more reliable than machinery and they could be taken anywhere. They became so valuable the British government introduced a £100 fine for anyone who harmed a homing pigeon.
Some animals were adopted by troops as mascots. The companionship they provided helped distract soldiers from the appalling conditions on the front. Mascots reminded some men of pets at home, and they provided a focus for the soldiers to come together and care for. One Canadian troop adopted an American black bear as their mascot, named Winnipeg (Winnie for short). The bear was given to London zoo in 1914, and was visited by AA Milne and his son Christopher. Milne’s son was so taken with the bear that the author wrote stories about the two of them – and so the character of Winnie the Pooh was born.
The involvement of animals in the war led to the creation of the RSPCA Fund for Sick and Wounded Horses. They were the only charity to be recognised and authorised by the Army Council to collect funds for British war horses. By 1915, over 50% of the RSPCA’s staff were serving with the armed forces. The RSPCA also established temporary kennels at Boulogne in France for dogs that belonged to men going on leave. After the war ended, they set up the Soldiers Dog Fund to help with the cost of bringing dogs over and keeping them in quarantine until they could be taken home. Five hundred kennels were built to house them all.