8. Nov, 2015

The Purple Poppy

The Purple Poppy

(A tribute to animals of war)

By J.J.Moffat

Recruiting for the First World War was something pigeons, cats, dogs and horses were not prepared for and neither were the glow worms or the slugs. Millions of animals were taken from the comfort of their homes to join the Army. They marched beside soldiers, bewildered, frightened and without choice.

     In France, trenches soon became infested with thousands of rats, breeding young ones and spreading disease. And so it was, 500,000 cats were employed as ratters. Many a man welcomed these creatures, not just because they killed the rats, but they raised morale which helped temporarily to relieve the stress of war. Quite often, when the sound of the guns blasted above them, the cats lay with the dying soldiers.

     Above the trenches, come rain, wind, or snow, soldiers on horseback raced to the front. Over a million mules and horses had been deployed from Britain alone, with the rest being shipped from North America at a thousand per week. Eight million horses died during The Great War, mostly from war wounds; foot rot, influenza, ringworm, starvation and gangrene. Hunger was a major problem, so sawdust was added to their food to slow down digestion. And despite all their efforts, these brave animal soldiers of war, often succumbed to the relentless bombardment and suffered from debilitating shellshock.

     Once again, when threatened by mustard gas, the Army turned to animals for help. They tested many of them for the detection of gas but they all failed, with the exception of the innocent garden slug. Why, may you ask? Exposed to mustard gas, the slug closes its breathing aperture, so protects its lungs. Recruited immediately and without training, they were marched to war!

      Back in the dark, dank trenches, winter loomed with the promise of being the coldest that France could ever recall.  Soldiers struggled to read their maps and letters from home and morale was low. Then along came an enormous army of glow worms. Not your average soldier by any stretch, but they proved their worth by joining the ranks and living in jam jars. It seemed that nothing could escape this terrible war! 

     Soon, the trenches, built from sandbags and wood, were occupied not only by soldiers, but cats, glow worms, slugs and dogs. It is no wonder, that typhus, dysentery and cholera soon followed. The unsuspecting dogs, once someone’s pet, were trained as messengers and enemy detectors whilst others became Mercy dogs on the battlefield. Carrying medical supplies in a box attached to them, these brave canine soldiers sought out the wounded and dying. Sitting besides the bloodied men, their cries merged as one.

     Americans didn’t use dogs, until they discovered a stowaway on board one of their ships. That dog, ‘Sergeant Stubby’ became the most highly-ranked and decorated service dog in military history. Around a million of these dogs died in action.

     The war was not only being fought on the ground, but up in the sky where pigeon ‘spies’ flew between France and Britain and frontline trenches. Strapped to them were messages, vital to the soldiers. These amazing birds (100,000 of them and probably more) fought the enemy falcons, released by the Germans in the battle of the sky. These birds of prey could bring the pigeon spies down when all else failed.

     And so this bloodiest of wars, with a total loss of more than 9 million soldiers, not counting civilians and the animals that supported them, ended at 11 o’clock in the morning of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.  But for the animals, their war was far from over.

     The National Archives in Kew, London, tell a sad tale of thousands of animal ‘soldiers’ left behind at the end of the war, in the hands of Belgian and French butchers. The same thing happened after WW2. Churchill was furious when he heard of their plight and arranged for their safe return home.

     In November 2004, Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, unveiled the Animals in War Memorial in Hyde Park, London. This was designed by an English sculptor to commemorate the animal soldiers that served and died under British Military command, throughout history.

At the going down of the sun, we will remember them.