Remembering the animals who served

Hunkered down in the dark, the dreary cold seeping into his bones, the soldier checked his watch by moonlight.

Jackie Larocque

Hunkered down in the dark, the dreary cold seeping into his bones, the soldier checked his watch by moonlight. There had been no contact with the 26th infantry. He jumped and almost screamed as the cold, wet nose, followed by a warm furry muzzle, thrust itself into his hand — the head moving under his arm as the body leaned against the soldier, his breath as quiet as the night.

After a quick pet, the soldier removed the message canister from the dog’s collar. He immediately alerted his commanding officer. The message read, “I have 42 men, mixed healthy and wounded. We have advanced to the road, but can go no further. Most men are from the 26th infantry. I am the only officer. Machine guns at our rear, front, right and left. Send infantry to take command. I need machine gun ammunition.”

Hard to believe? That was a message Rags delivered as he dug through barbed wire, dodged shell holes and gun fire. Reinforcements were sent and the cut-off group was rescued.

Thousands of animals served in every war and thousands died in action. Dogs were the most versatile and had a variety of jobs. Mercy dogs delivered medical supplies to the wounded on the field. Messenger dogs saved thousands of lives delivering messages when communications were down. Sentinel dogs gave warnings of ambush or intruders. Mine dogs were used to sniff out mines. Search and rescue dogs were used after bombings. Ratters for killing rats, cigarette dogs carried food and cigarettes to the front lines.

Sled teams used to carry supplies or wounded consisted of dogs, horses or mules. Elephants, horses, mules and camels dragged heavy machinery when vehicles couldn’t get through. Even reindeer played their part transporting weapons, supplies and the wounded. Cats did what cats do best keeping the food supplies free from rodents and warming any lap available. Messenger pigeons delivered messages. There are even rumours of mice being release in enemy vehicles to chew wires, rendering them useless.

Don’t think that war animals were limited to the furred and feathered. The silk from spiders was used for the cross hairs on bomb sights and other surveying equipment.

Some notable heroes of the four-legged set include Daisy, a mutt who dove into the icy Atlantic when a Norwegian ship was torpedoed. She swam throughout the night from man to man licking their faces until they were rescued the next morning.

An allied messenger dog crossed paths with a German messenger dog. How do we know this? Because when the allied messenger dog showed up, not only did he carry his message canister around his neck, but he also had a German message canister still attached to a dog collar in his mouth.

In 1941, Gander, a Newfoundland dog, grabbed a grenade that was thrown into camp. He ran it out of camp saving the lives of Canadian and Commonwealth soldiers. He was killed in this action and was the only Canadian animal to receive the Dickin Medal, a medal awarded to any animal displaying gallantry and devotion during World War II. Fifty-three medals were awarded to 18 dogs, three horses, one cat and 31 pigeons.

Animals fought and died in wars, side by side with men and women and are still part of battle conflicts today. Please take a moment to remember our war animals this Remembrance Day and the thousands of lives they saved.

Jackie Larocque is a Sylvan Lake-based writer with several decades of experience in the animal care industry.