The Dogs of War and Other Battlefield Animals

In recent years Steven Spielberg’s movie War Horse celebrated the role of our four-legged friends in World War One, but animals have had and still have a long and distinguished career within the military. The wonderful website has produced a series of fascinating articles on the subject, which I have compressed into the piece below.

It may be man’s best friend, but never underestimate a canine when it comes to battle. Attila the Hun knew this well enough. He sent packs of giant Molosser dogs to attack the enemy during his campaigns. The use of canines became more sophisticated in later centuries. During two world wars dogs were given duties ranging from carrying messages to helping to locate mines.

There are numerous stories of canine heroism, but I particularly like the role played by Stubby, a bulldog terrier with the US 102nd Infantry Regiment in World War One, which saved the lives of many men.

Sergeant Stubby was highly decorated

Sergeant Stubby was highly decorated

Thanks to his great sense of smell and hearing, Stubby could warn troops of incoming shells and gas attacks. He would also locate wounded soldiers in No Man’s Land, standing by their side and barking until a medic arrived. He even detained a German spy who was mapping out the American trenches. Stubby’s actions earned him the rank of Sergeant.  He died in 1926, a national hero.

In World War Two, the Soviets even used bomb-carrying dogs to attack the Germans. However, the tactic failed as the poor dogs were often too scared and fled back to their own lines with the bombs still strapped to them.

From 1964-1973 America deployed about 4,000 war dogs to Vietnam. They and their handlers foiled surprise attacks to such an extent that the Viet Cong placed a price tag on their heads. In modern theatres, like Iraq and Afghanistan, dogs have proved vital in sniffing out Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), saving many lives in the process.

John Simpson Kirkpatrick (centre) with Duffy

John Simpson Kirkpatrick (centre) with Duffy

DONKEYS: It is estimated that eight million horses perished during World War One, from disease, wounds or exhaustion. One story highlights the dedication of these beasts of burden. In 1915, John Simpson Kirkpatrick served with the ANZAC force at Gallipoli where he took it upon himself to use a donkey to carry wounded soldiers away from the front line and back to the beach for evacuation.

Despite the obvious dangers from gunfire and shrapnel, Kirkpatrick and his donkey, Duffy, went back and forth from the battlefield rescuing soldiers. Kirkpatrick did his rescue work for three weeks until he was killed by Turkish machine gun fire whilst leading Duffy and a wounded soldier back to safety. The donkey, however, continued along the path that they had used so often, returning the wounded man to where he could be treated.

ELEPHANTS: Hannibal’s use of troop-mounted elephants in his battles against the Romans is well known. The use of war elephants had is drawbacks, however. It was noted that they panicked and stampeded at the sound of a squealing pig. As a result, pigs were often set ablaze and flung form the walls of besieged towns in a bid to spook the elephants.  Elephants were used in war theatres as late as 1942-45 in Burma to haul heavy equipment along rugged tracks

CAMELS: Camels have obviously been used in the Middle East, but they were also deployed in America. The US Camel Corps was formed in 1855 to move supplies in the campaigns against Mexico and Native Americans. The Corps was disbanded at the outbreaks of the American Civil War, partly because of the camels’ tendency to frighten the horses due to their taciturn attitude.

LITTLE CRITTERS: In World War One, soldiers would trap glow worms in jars and use the small light they emitted to read maps and correspondence in the dark trenches.

Also during the Great War, the common garden slug was deployed by the U.S. army as an early warning to the presence of mustard gas. The highly sensitive slugs would indicate their discomfort to the presence of gas in enough time for the soldiers to put on their gas masks.

The Romans were no less inventive. They would unleash angry swarms of bees by catapulting bee hives into advancing armies. Even in World War One, bee hive booby traps were used by both sides, when a hive would fall onto the unwitting soldier after they activated a trip wire.

PIGEONS: To prevent German homing pigeons sending messages to and from spies within the UK in World War Two, MI5 trained peregrine falcons to patrol the skies. When a batch of pigeons were sighted flying from the Scilly Isles for France in 1942, the falcons were sent on two-hour patrols, with the task of killing any pigeon that came into view.

DOLPHINS & SEALIONS: From the 1960s to the 1990s the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program trained dolphins and sea lions for military uses. The bottlenose dolphin’s biosonar makes it the perfect ally to help detect and recover underwater mines, while the sea lion’s incredible underwater vision and agility makes it the ideal marine sentry, helping to spot approaching enemy swimmers.

Both animals can even be trained to attach a device onto an enemy swimmer which will then deploy a buoy, alerting crew nearby to the intruders’ presence. These animals’ ability to dive to great depths also enables them to help with tagging and recovering objects from the seabed. Dolphins helped protect U.S. ships during the Vietnam War and were even deployed to Bahrain in 1987 and 1988 to patrol the USS La Salle in harbour. More recently, sea lions were sent to the Persian Gulf to help protect U.S. and British warships during the Iraq War of 2003.


About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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8 Responses to The Dogs of War and Other Battlefield Animals

  1. carolervin says:

    I found a wonderful instructional treatise titled The Mule, written in something like 1867 by Harvey Riley, Superintendent of the Government Corral. The book made me aware of the use of mules in the American Civil War. It’s a Project Gutenberg reprint (ebook) available free. It’s written in simple language, so different from the flowery prose of the period. Imagine, there was a Government Corral. Books like these are treasures. Thanks for your post!


  2. I just downloaded it, Carol. Look forward to having a read. Thanks!


  3. I found War Horse to be a moving and incredibly realistic film. Your post is very interesting. Animals of war are not often mentioned. I have a blog on the Second World War and write occasional posts with reference to the role of animals. A recent post was on the creation of the K-9 Corps.


    • That’s an interesting link, Brandon, and I see from your comments that the dogs were treated as veterans when they retired, which is brilliant. Your blog is excellent. Thanks for sharing. – David


  4. Tracey Best says:

    Check out this link regarding Moose. The second comment especially refers to what I was looking for. Marshall had told me about this group that was wiped out to eliminate the knowledge of domesticating moose. Thought you might be interested.


    • Thanks Tracey. That’s a fascinating post. I suppose when you look at the size of the animal it’s not that surprising to think of someone using a moose like a horse, but it’s not something that readily springs to mind


  5. Laura Hedgecock says:

    Great article! My grandpa served as a wagoner in WWI and took care of horses in his unit. I love hearing more about that.


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