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Beasts in battle

‘Never such innocence again’ wrote Philip Larkin of an unquestioning British people on the eve of the first world war, and much has been made, not unreasonably, of the trusting frame of mind in which young men of that time accepted the arguments for war in 1914.

29 January 2011

12:00 AM

29 January 2011

12:00 AM

Tommy's Ark: Soldiers and their Animals in the Great War Richard Van Emden

Bloomsbury, pp.336, 16.99

‘Never such innocence again’ wrote Philip Larkin of an unquestioning British people on the eve of the first world war, and much has been made, not unreasonably, of the trusting frame of mind in which young men of that time accepted the arguments for war in 1914.

‘Never such innocence again’ wrote Philip Larkin of an unquestioning British people on the eve of the first world war, and much has been made, not unreasonably, of the trusting frame of mind in which young men of that time accepted the arguments for war in 1914. If they were innocents, even more so were the animals caught up in it all — the countless horses and mules in the transport and artillery service, the pets and livestock exiled from devastated French and Belgian farms, and the wild fauna disturbed from their natural habitats. As Richard Van Emden’s moving anthology of soldiers’ letters and memories shows, the fate of these hapless creatures amid the horrors of the Western Front also played an important part in the lives of many serving soldiers.

As the war progressed the relationship between mobilised mankind and animals altered, but their fates were always inseparable. During the war of movement before trench warfare began, first encounters with the enemy revealed the vulnerability of cavalry to rapid rifle- and machine gun-fire. In fact it very soon became an impossibility thanks to shell holes, machine guns and barbed wire, and with it a particular close relationship between rider and steed declined.

It was more than a year before the destruction at the Front became too extreme for wild nature and stray animals to survive there. Hares, rabbits, pigs, cattle, dogs and cats were a common sight in 1915–16 and a lot of men acquired beloved pets at this time. By 1917 the Western Front was becoming ‘the writhen waste …Defiled, defaced’, where very little, save rats, lice and humans, could exist for miles on either side of the line. When the British 5th Army was driven back towards Amiens in the spring of 1918, however, the fighting took place once more in undestroyed countryside and, for some soldiers, contact with animal life was restored, including briefly with an aviary of ostriches and emus in a chateau deserted by its owner. Finally during the ‘Hundred Days’ at the end of the war, the British forces overran the undamaged countryside beyond the German lines, and for the first time since the start of the war witnessed effective cavalry action (their own) at the Front. The fighting had come full circle.

Horses dominate this book — it is estimated that over a million horses and mules were purchased or mobilised by the British Army in the Great War, invaluable for hauling supplies and guns over boggy and rough terrain. The Veterinary Corps, much needed, grew from just over 500 men to 18,000 by the end of the war. During the fighting, 225,000 horses and mules were killed by gas and gunfire, but many more succumbed to illness and exhaustion. Their drivers were devoted to them:


I remember only too well working with several others for hours in the darkness in a desperate effort to save a pair of beautiful draught horses who were gradually sinking in the mud [wrote Corporal Robert Evans of the Royal Engineers]. As this was happening well within range of the German machine gunners, we had to work in darkness while their driver spoke quiet endearments to his horses, to encourage them. It was a heartbreaking, horribly long-drawn-out, losing battle, and gradually we knew they were doomed. Poor tragic driver! I have never forgotten you; you, who had looked after them for so long and loved them so much, now wept, heartbroken, and who shall wonder that you wept?

Apart from a few, later rescued in the 1920s, only 62,000 horses and mules returned home. The rest were worked to death on foreign farms, or sent to the knacker’s yard.

Other animals were put to use at the Front: dogs and pigeons as message carriers, and mice and canaries to warn sappers of gas attacks:

I found the men working, although the canary was flat on its back with its feet in the air [recorded a subaltern]. I wanted to know what they meant by continuing to work under such conditions and the sapper in charge expressed the view of the shift when he said ‘That bloody bird ain’t got no guts, sir.’

On the whole, however, birds were treated with more respect. To many soldiers they seemed free spirits, flying high or sweetly singing, regardless of the misery, death and explosions around them.

Regimental mascots at the Front were common. ‘Sammy’, a terrier, came over with the Northumberland Fusiliers to France in 1915. He was wounded and gassed during the second battle of Ypres, always accompanied the battalion into the trenches and was several times buried by shellfire. Soldiers also became extremely fond of stray dogs and cats they adopted. One dog, Thélus, who had lost his paw, had a wooden leg made by the brigade MO and became the battery pet, completely acclimatised to the heavy guns they fired. The sharp hearing of such animals could be useful in distinguishing at once between types of shell and the direction from which they were coming.

Some unusual pets showed up at the Front, including several monkeys. There were numerous goats; one, attached to an artillery battery, had a mania for tobacco and would snatch cigarettes from soldiers’ mouths and devour them.

Such eccentricities lightened soldiers’ lives. An animal with an unusual personality would be treasured, such as the horse who feigned illness to avoid night duties or the cat known as ‘The Landlady’, who used to parade up and down in no-man’s-land in search of rats, in full view of both sides.

Anything that spelt death for rats was of course welcome. Soldiers may have found consolation in looking at the heavens at night, or in contemplating butterflies and moths — even earwigs and daddy-long-legs — in spring or summer, hopeful that nature would survive the war in the end and life would go on; but rats, lice and flies remained the soldier’s enemy.

One could not ask for a more dramatic and entertaining selection on a little known area of Great War history by an experienced chronicler and anthologist of that cata- clysmic event. A few more specific dates for the extracts, which are often from long out-of-print and forgotten works, would be helpful, though these might be difficult to find. I look forward to a further volume on the topic ranging further afield to Mesopotamia and beyond, and the British navy.


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