The pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille kept two lion cubs (Whiskey and Soda); the 2nd Battalion of the Welsh Regiment had a goat (Taffy IV); the South African 3rd Trasvaal Regiment awarded a baboon named Jackie the rank of Private; Australians took a koala to war with them, and the American 102nd Infantry Regiment proudly boasted the most decorated dog of the First World War, Sergeant Stubby, who participated in seventeen engagements and was wounded twice.*
The British Imperial War Museum estimates that at least 16 million animals served in the First World War, assisting in military efforts.** The role of horses in the war has received increased attention since the 1982 publication of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel War Horse (as well as the release of the award-winning play and movie based on the book), but other animals also played a critical part. Camels, mules, donkeys, canaries, pigeons, cats, and dogs were used to transport supplies, detect gas attacks, send messages, hunt rats, rescue the wounded, scout enemy territory, and keep watch as sentries.
Just as importantly, animals provided comfort and companionship, reminding soldiers of home and of the ordinariness of life before the war. Many units had mascots, and soldiers often smuggled pets with them or adopted stray animals they found at the front. Cats were popular for their prowess in killing the millions of rats that swarmed the trenches, but for many soldiers, dogs were fondly regarded as man’s best friend. It is estimated that over 50,000 dogs accompanied the armies on both sides of the conflict.
Tragically, animals also became military targets and casualties of war. It is estimated that as many as eight million horses died during the First World War, and countless other animals were also killed in the line of duty. Edward de Stein, an officer in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, wrote in memory of a trench dog who had endeared himself to all who knew him.
ELEGY ON THE DEATH OF BINGO, OUR TRENCH DOG
—by the Trench Bard (Major E. De Stein)
Weep, weep, ye dwellers in the delvèd earth,
Ah, weep, ye watchers by the dismal shore
Of No Man’s Land, for Bingo is no more;
He is no more, and well ye knew his worth,
For whom on bully-beefless days were kept
Rare bones by each according to his means,
And, while the Quartermaster-Sergeant slept,
The elusive pork was rescued from the beans.
He is no more, and, impudently brave,
The loathly rats sit grinning on his grave.
Him mourn the grimy cooks and bombers ten,
The sentinels in lonely posts forlorn,
The fierce patrols with hands and tunics torn,
The furtive band of sanitary men.
The murmuring sound of grief along the length
Of traversed trench the startled Hun could hear;
The Captain, as he struck him off the strength,
Let fall a sad and solitary tear;
‘Tis even said a batman passing by
Had seen the Sergeant-Major wipe his eye.
The fearful fervour of the feline chase
He never knew, poor dog, he never knew;
Content with optimistic zeal to woo
Reluctant rodents in this murky place,
He never played with children on clean grass,
Nor dozed at ease beside the glowing embers,
Nor watched with hopeful eye the tea-cakes pass,
Nor smelt the heather-smell of Scotch Septembers,
For he was born amid a world at war
Although unrecking what we struggled for.
Yet who shall say that Bingo was unblest
Though all his Sprattless† life was passed beneath
The roar of mortars and the whistling breath
Of grim, nocturnal heavies going west?
Unmoved he heard the evening hymn of hate,
Unmoved would gaze into his master’s eyes.
For all the sorrows men for men create
In search of happiness wise dogs despise,
Finding ecstatic joy in every rag
And every smile of friendship worth a wag.