By Alex Jones
COURAGEOUS pups who hunted vermin, located stricken soldiers in no man’s land, and delivered vital messages whilst dodging between shell bursts and bullets all played their part in the Great War as these remarkable photos prove.
Riding proudly on top of a horse, nonchalantly leading a victory parade, or resting its bandaged paws after serving a stint in the front-line trenches – dogs were never far away from the heat of battle in the First World War.
As a nation of animal lovers, it is perhaps no surprise that canine companions were so prolific along the dangerous, muddy trenches. Offering camaraderie and a welcome remainder of domestic bliss amid the terrible death and destruction, dogs were often used as mascots to maintain morale throughout the war years.
The dogs also served other roles in the gruesome conflict – with some acting as messenger jobs between the British military headquarters and the frontline. Others would be tasked with clearing the trenches of mice and rats and protecting the Tommies’ food stores; carrying food or ammunition; locating injured soldiers so they could receive medical aid; pulling carts and sledges; or acting as decoys or sentries.
Messenger dogs that served in the British Army were recruited from Battersea Dogs’ Home in London, then trained for active service at The War Dog Training School in Shoeburyness, England. The dogs that successfully completed their initial training then received an overseas posting to kennels at Etaples, in France. From Etaples, the dogs were posted to kennels near the front line, where they joined up with combat units. Fleet of foot and well-trained, the dogs would deliver vital messages in the throes of battle, presenting a far smaller and quicker target for enemy sharpshooters to hit than their human equivalent.
On average each sectional kennel had 48 dogs and 16 handlers, a ratio that indicates how important the dogs’ work was at the front. Usually the dogs had been strays, so one particular breed of dog could be not preferred. Generally, however, traditional working breeds, such as collies, retrievers, or large terriers, were chosen for messenger work. The Red Cross also commonly used Airedale Terriers to find wounded soldiers.
Some dogs were adopted by British soldiers after their owners were killed or had fled from the war zone.
Up to 20,000 dogs were trained for front-line duties during World War One. A Lt Col Richardson, the man in charge of running the War Dog School of Instruction, was quoted in the Aberdeen Evening Express in 1918 as saying: “The skill, courage and tenacity of these dogs has been amazing”.