Unsung heroes, animals played vital and varied roles in WWI
PARIS — They were messengers, spies and sentinels. They led cavalry charges, carried supplies to the front, comforted wounded soldiers and died by the millions during World War I.
Horses, mules, dogs, pigeons and even a baboon all were a vital — and for decades overlooked — part of the Allied war machine.
Researchers have been hard-pressed to find official accounts of the services rendered by animals during the Great War. But if their labors once were taken for granted, four-legged and winged warriors have been acknowledged more recently as unsung heroes.
France recently decided to recognize their wartime role. And in 2004, Britain installed a huge memorial on the edge of London’s Hyde Park to “all the animals that served, suffered and died alongside the British, Commonwealth and Allied forces in the wars and conflicts of the 20th century.”
Here’s a look at how they contributed.
WHAT THEY DID
An estimated 10 million horses and mules, 100,000 dogs and 200,000 pigeons were enrolled in the war effort, according to Eric Baratay, a French historian specializing in the response of animals to the chaos, fear and smells of death in the mission that man thrust upon them.
World War I marked the start of industrial warfare, with tanks, trucks, aircraft and machine guns in action. But the growing sophistication of the instruments of death couldn’t match the dog tasked with finding the wounded, the horses and mules hauling munitions and food or the pigeons serving as telecommunications operators or even eyes, carrying “pigeongrams” or tiny cameras to record German positions.
“They were quasi-combatants,” said Serge Barcellini, comptroller general of the Armed Forces and head of Le Souvenir Francais — The French Memory — in a recent speech devoted to the role played by beasts of war.
Indeed, gas masks were fitted to the muzzles of four-legged warriors braving noxious battlefield fumes.
In France, as in Britain and elsewhere, horses and mules were requisitioned.
One typical sign posted in southern Paris ordered citizens to present their steeds and mules to the Requisition Committee by Nov. 14, 1914, or risk “prosecution by the military authority.” It was becoming clear there would be no quick end to the war that ground on for four more years.
Cher Ami, or Dear Friend, the carrier pigeon who wouldn’t quit, lived up to her name, saving the lives of 194 American troops of the “Lost Battalion” of the 77th Infantry Division, isolated behind enemy lines during the 1918 Meuse-Argonne offensive in eastern France.
About 550 men had held their ground against a far larger German force for days before coming under fire from American troops unaware the trapped soldiers weren’t the enemy.
On Oct. 4, Maj. Charles Whittlesey sent Cher Ami into the skies with a final message giving the U.S. battalion’s location, followed by a plea: “For heaven’s sake stop it.”
Cher Ami lost an eye and a leg from German gunfire, but kept flying, around 25 miles (40 kilometers) in about a half-hour, according to the United States World War One Centennial Commission. Survivors of the “Lost Battalion” returned to American lines four days later.