The film War Horse enlightened us to the usage and suffering of tens of thousands of horses during World War1. However it is less widely known the extent to which dogs became unsung hero’s of the great war, with more than a million canines losing their lives during that period.
These war dogs played many roles in the war including 20,000 who were trained specifically for front line duties, according to a collection of recently uncovered old newspapers which have been made available on the family history website www.findmypast.co.uk.
Interestingly, around 7000 of these dogs started life as family pets. Historian, Debra Chatfield at www.findmypast.co.uk, says: “It’s amazing, and heart wrenching to think of thousands of families saying goodbye to their pet dogs so that they could serve their country at the front line”.
So important was the canine role in WW1, that in the early months of 1917, the War Office formed the War Dog School of Instruction in Hampshire to train them.
Here are some examples of the roles that these dedicated dogs played in securing victory fro Britain:
A soldier would patrol the land ahead on foot with a scout dog at his side Their excellent sense of smell allowed these dogs to detect enemy scent up to 1000 yards away! These dogs were trained not to bark which would draw attention to the squad, instead they would raise their ears and shackles as well as point their tail to indicate that the enemy was near.
Doberman’s were the choice breed for the sentry role which was essentially a guarding role. These dogs were trained to accompany a specific guard and to give off warning signals such as a snarl, growl or a bark to indicate an unknown presence in the camp. Doberman’s are still used as guard dogs today.
Communication was a problem within the maze of trenches. Human messengers were too visible a target, however trained messenger dogs were not only smaller, but faster and able to travel over almost any terrain. One dog training school in Scotland produced a dog who travelled 4,000 miles over the Western Front to deliver a message to Brigade’s headquarters. These dogs were also used to deliver cigarettes for the troops, or even explosives.
Casualty dogs were trained to find the dying and wounded across the horrors of the battlefields. Strapped up with medical supplies, they offered soldiers with less severe wounds a chance to treat their ailments. For those for whom it was too late, the dogs provided solace during their final moments.
After being exposed to the horrors of daily warfare, the men found some comfort and a level of stress relief in having a dog around. They also served as a distraction to the filthy trench conditions that they found themselves in. Apparently even Adolf Hitler kept a dog when he served in the German Trenches.