Remember the four-legged heroes

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24 September 2014
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Unsung heroes

Dogs played an invaluable role on the Western Front during the Great War. Kelly Felstead finds out more.

Tributes took place this year to mark 100 years since the start of the First World War. Millions of people lost their lives fighting for King and country, but did you know that the unsung heroes of the Great War had four legs?

It is thought that around 20,000 dogs contributed to the war effort, oft en sacrificing their lives so that soldiers could be spared.

Many a bold canine battled on despite suffering injuries, showing immense courage and loyalty to their handlers.

Some dogs were donated by families while others were recruited from dogs' homes and police pounds across the UK.

The role of dogs on the front line was of grave importance to the war effort, not just in Britain but for the Allied troops across Europe.

Four-legged recruits were trained for a variety of roles; carrying aid to the wounded, accompanying patrols for the purpose of scenting the enemy, acting as sentinels, and carrying messages from the first line of fighting troops to commanding officers at the rear. 

Sentinel dogs were trained to stand quietly on the top of the trench alongside their master's gun barrel, and to inform soldiers, without making a noise, if anyone attempted to approach the barbed wire entanglement, without giving any hint to the approaching enemy that he had been discovered.

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Uncovering history

Last year, family history website Find My Past delved into its archives and analysed a number of old newspapers from the period.

The research uncovered the extent to which Britain's dogs were relied upon during the First World War, which took place between 1914 and 1918, and how they lived in the trenches.

"Throughout human history, the bond between Man and dogs has been unbreakable, and the role these animals played during the war was of paramount importance, as can be seen in the old newspaper reports found on findmypast.co.uk," said Debra Chatfield, a family historian at Find My Past.

An article in the Aberdeen Evening Express from December 15, 1918, praised the ‘splendid work' of animals in the war effort, giving comfort to people who donated their beloved pets.

It reported: "It is only fitting that they should know that their dogs have been the means of saving countless lives and much valuable property, and have also been instrumental in materially substituting manpower at a time when this was all important.

"Numbers of men and dogs have been trained at the War Dog School and have gone to France, the dogs to act as message carriers in the field, and the men to take charge of them as their keepers.

"The skill, courage, and tenacity of those dogs has been amazing. During heavy barrages, when all other communications have been cut, the messenger dogs have made their way, and in many cases have brought messages of vital importance.

"Sometimes they have been wounded in the performance of their duties, and there is a wonderful record of the determination with which wounded dogs have persisted in their duty. In the same way the record continues of successful message carrying through darkness, mist, rain, and shell-fire and over difficult ground. Many a time has a dog brought a message in a few minutes over ground which would take a runner hours to cross."

Canine recruits

When the First World War broke out in 1914, there were virtually no military dogs attached to the British Army, except one sole Airedale, trained as a sentry dog.

Lieutenant Colonel E.H. Richardson, a police and military dog trainer, worked with the British Red Cross in Belgium, where many dogs were shot at and killed, and supplied dogs for sentry and patrol work. He was later asked by the Royal Artillery to supply dogs to act as messengers between outposts and main batteries during heavy bombardment.

On New Year's Eve, 1916, two Airedale Terriers called Wolf and Prince successfully carried messages over a two-mile stretch.

Following the success story of Wolf and Prince, the demand for messenger dogs grew, resulting in the formation, by Lt Col Richardson, of the War Dog School of Instruction in Hampshire in the early months of 1917.

In his book ‘British War Dogs', published in 1920, Lt Col Richardson included a nominal roll of men and dogs, which described the type of dogs most suitable to the task.

Breeds regarded as good messengers and sentries included Airedales, collies, sheepdogs, Whippets, retrievers, and Deerhounds.

When writing about the nominal roll of messenger dogs, Lt Col Richardson commented: "The gift of intelligence necessary for message carrying cannot be said to be confined in particular to any one breed.

"It should be noted, however, that many of these dogs had slight crosses in them, and this is especially so in the case of the retrievers, many of which had a strain of collie in them."

Lurchers were considered the best all-round war dogs, while Great Danes, Boarhounds, and Mastiff s were the best watchdogs.

A report in the Dundee Evening Telegraph, dated from April 4, 1916, described the temperament required for a watchdog: "A watchdog never barks; at the most he will use a low growl to indicate the presence or approach of a hostile force. More oft en than not the mere pricking of the ears or the attitude of expectancy is sufficient to put his master on his guard."

Home and away

Dogs' homes across the country had a huge involvement in the war, both in Britain and abroad.

At first, canine war recruits came from dogs' homes in Battersea, Liverpool, and Birmingham.

Battersea Dogs & Cats Home was one of the biggest donors of canine recruits and had worked with Lt Col Richardson since 1914 when he first began to build his canine brigade.

The most famous of the stray dogs from Battersea was Jack, an Airedale Terrier, who was trained at the War Dog School and served in France with the Sherwood Foresters.

Jack was dispatched to deliver a message calling for reinforcements when his battalion became trapped under enemy fire. Despite an aggressive bombardment of mortar and shells, Jack navigated his way through the attack and delivered his message. He was struck twice on his journey and died of his wounds when he arrived at the base. However, the actions of brave Jack saved the lives of many of the men in his battalion.

Back in Britain, the consequences of war were also being felt.

The number of stray dogs being taken to Battersea was beginning to soar and strays were appearing across London, as people struggled under the privations of rationing to feed themselves and their pets.

Some desperate owners even slipped off their dogs' collars and took the animals to Battersea on a piece of string, passing them off as strays.

The charity cited one story of a woman who broke down in tears after doing this, when her dog tried to follow her as she left.

Lack of food was also the biggest problem facing Battersea Dogs Home, and this continued long aft er troops returned home. 

Dogs Trust, then known as the National Canine Defence League (NCDL), immediately took action when proposals were put forward to ban all dogs in towns and cities and put most of them down, as part of an anti-dog campaign at the outbreak of war, where families were advised to get rid of their dogs so they did not consume precious resources.

The league promised to help threatened families and, as a result, thousands of dog food supplies were sent out by dog food manufacturer Spratts.

"The National Canine Defence League was very active during the First World War," said Clarissa Baldwin, Dogs Trust chief executive.

"From being instrumental in getting the War Office to drop the idea of using dogs to draw guns at the front, to finding homes for messenger dogs and helping war-affected families afford the licence fee.

"Our predecessors did their bit to help our four-legged friends who were caught up in war.

"On the centenary of the start of the First World War, we are grateful for their contribution."