Horses were probably the most common animal used initially but some armies even used elephants and camels in their ‘cavalry’ units. The Great General Hannibal in 218 BC crossed the mountains with 37 war elephants to attack the Roman Empire and many tribes in desert regions used camels instead of horses due to the harsh conditions.The 20th century probably saw the greatest use of animals in warfare particularly during the two world wars. Almost 8 million horses, mules and donkeys were used in WW1 to carry supplies to the front lines in horrendous conditions which proved too much for the early military vehicles. Horses and mules were again used in WW2 in the jungles of Burma and East Asia to carry weapons and supplies through the mountains and valleys which were inaccessible by any other means. Many didn’t survive or were abandoned when the armies withdrew. (The Brooke horse charity came about in the 1930’s due to the plight of hundreds of war horses abandoned in Egypt by the UK, Australia and America after the first world war)Apart from the obvious duties of guarding camps and soldiers dogs have been used for carrying messages, laying telephone wires and detecting mines as well as searching for injured people in collapsed buildings. In the Vietnam War America used over 4,000 dogs to protect its bases, seek out the enemy and enter tunnels which were too dangerous for the soldiers to climb into. 500 were killed in action (KIA) and shamefully when America withdrew at the end of the war the rest were abandoned to their fate.
In the two world wars of the 20th century over 300,000 homing pigeons were used to transport urgent messages back from the front line and many units moved forward under fire with cages of these birds to send back updates on the battles. Even cats have played their part and many a Royal Navy warship has had an official ships cat whose duty it was to keep the rats and mice under control. The most famous of these cats was Simon who served on HMS Amethyst during the late 1940’s. He had been found wandering sick and exhausted in the docks of Hong Kong by one of the crew and taken on board the ship and nursed back to health. He repaid this kindness by catching and killing any rodents he could find that posed a threat to the food supplies of the ship. Even when he was badly injured during a protracted battle he still stayed with the ship until it managed to escape a blockade and return to its homeport. For his dedication to duty he was awarded the Dickin medal for gallantry and given the official rank of ‘Able Sea Cat’ (An Able Seaman is the equivalent human rank). Elephants, camels. Dogs, oxen, bullocks, cats, canaries, mules, horse and donkeys are just some of the animals that have given their lives in the wars and conflicts of the 20th century. Often struggling on through appalling conditions wounded, hungry and thirsty. Always loyal always giving their all.
In November 2004 a large memorial was unveiled at Brook Gate, Park lane , London as a powerful and moving tribute to all the animals that served, suffered or died alongside the British, Commonwealth or Allied forces in wars and conflicts of the 20th century.
The memorial comprises a large Portland stone wall partially shielding an arena through which two bronze mules are struggling, heading for some steps and a gap in the wall leading to the gardens beyond. Once through the gap in the wall you find two further bronze statues, one is of a large war horse closely followed by a medium sized dog. The horse is breaking into a gallop whilst the dog is looking back over his shoulder. These two animals symbolise hope for the future whilst at the same time bearing witness to fallen comrades.
The arena side of the wall has raised carvings of the different animals that have gone to war for mankind whilst on the reverse are silhouettes of animals intended to depict the spirits of those lost in conflicts. Carved on the front of the memorial below the dedication is a simple sentence, “They had no choice”
Standing next to the bronze dog in the shade of the trees I felt an overwhelming sadness about what mankind does to the animals of this planet. Dogs and Equines in particular give unending devotion and service yet are often abused and neglected. I watched as people and vehicles passed by rarely stopping to read the inscription or taking time to study the memorial.Scattered at the foot of the memorial were a number of fading poppy wreathes probably from the preceding armistice day (marked on the 11th Hour of the 11th day of the 11th Month each year commemorating the end of World War 1) and some poignant messages from people who had not forgotten what sacrifices were made by the animals in conflicts.
A lone candle was lit by a Dutch cyclist completing a 540km sponsored bike ride for a Sri Lankan animal charity and those people at the memorial fell silent for a few minutes. The Animals in war memorial in London does not glorify conflicts but serves as a reminder to us all that mankind owes a great debt to the animals we use for our own ends.
“They had no choice”
“They had no choice”