Kenora Great War Project


Animals at War

by Laureen Parsons

Over 16 million animals served in the First World War and often died alongside their human colleagues. From the largest mammal to the smallest of creatures, each of them served an important role on the battlefield and in the trenches.

These animals were chosen for a variety of reasons and vast numbers were killed, often suffering agonizing deaths from wounds, starvation, thirst, exhaustion, disease and exposure.

War Pigeons

Trapped behind enemy lines during the First World War, the few surviving soldiers of the 77th Infantry Division came under fire from both sides. As German bullets blasted through the forest in northeast France picking them off one by one, they came under heavy shellfire from their own lines too.

With less than 200 men from a unit of 500, three messengers were sent on a dangerous last-ditch mission to let HQ know their position. It was their only hope.

Two were killed at once. The third was hit too. Blinded in one eye, with a gaping chest wound and one leg hanging by a single tendon, the determined courier managed to struggle a further 25 miles and deliver the message before collapsing.

The plan worked. Allied bombardment stopped at once and 194 men from what became known as the US Army’s Lost Battalion were rescued.

What makes this heroic story all the more astonishing is the fact that the messenger was not a soldier. It was a female carrier pigeon called Cher Ami. Cher Ami survived her battle wounds from October 1918 and even had a wooden leg carved for her.

She was one of 100,000 homing pigeons used to carry messages to and from the trenches between 1914 and 1918. Where other methods failed, pigeons had a success rate of 95%.

They performed heroically and saved thousands of lives by carrying these messages, sometimes over long distances, when other methods of communication were impossible. Flying at the rate of a mile a minute from the front line or from behind enemy lines or from ships or airplanes, these gallant birds would struggle on through all weather, even when severely wounded and exhausted, in order to carry their vital messages home.

At the beginning of the war, pigeons were also used for aerial photography. A homing pigeon was fitted with an aluminum harness to which a lightweight time-delayed miniature camera could be attached.

Initially, the military thought pigeon photography for aerial information appeared to be a good idea. But as the development and use of airplanes became more reliable the use for pigeon photography was no longer required.

War Horses

Trench warfare, machine guns and barbed wire made cavalry charges all but impossible. Motor vehicles were still unreliable at that time, so horses and mules were needed to haul guns, supplies and weapons to the front lines. Initially, horses were taken from families, mines and farms in England and in the first 12 days of war, 165,000 horses were bought. While this seems like a huge number, little did anybody know that this was just the beginning. As the war went on, thousands more horses from Canada and the United States were also sent to war.

The value of horses, and the increasing difficulty of replacing them, was such that some troops were told that the loss of a horse was greater than the loss of a human soldier.

During some periods of the war, 1,000 horses per day were arriving in Europe to replace horses lost. Some horses, having collapsed from exhaustion, drowned in ankle-deep mud, too tired to lift their heads high enough to breathe. Many others died as a result of becoming stuck in mud, falling in shell holes and starvation. Horses that survived suffered from lack of food, care, and the poison gas attacks that injured their lungs and skin. Later, several types of gas masks were developed, although horses often confused them with feedbags and ended up destroying them.

By 1917, Britain had over a million horses and mules in service, but harsh conditions, especially during winter, resulted in heavy losses, particularly amongst the Clydesdale horses, the main breed used to haul the guns.

Supplies and fresh water for the horses were always a problem. The daily ration for a horse was 20 lbs. of grain a day. This was nearly a quarter of what a horse would be fed normally.

Many died of starvation despite the efforts of their handlers, who often went out into nearby fields and beat corn and oats for food. One soldier recalls the horses being so hungry they were eating their blankets and choking on the buckles. Shelter was nonexistent and while this was fine in good weather, the wet, cold months saw horses up to their fetlocks or worse in mud.

Eight million horses, mules and donkeys died, yet two and a half million were treated in veterinary hospitals with about two million being sufficiently cured that they could return to duty.

Of those that survived, not all made it back to England. It was expensive to ship horses. Many were sold to butchers in France, or auctioned off to French farmers for very little money so that Britain didn’t have to transport them back home. This was not a great way to treat animals that had fought just as hard as their human counterparts, but there were some happy stories. In some cases, soldiers pooled money together to bring their favourite horses home and give them a good life after the war.

War Dogs

Military dogs in the war were put in a variety of roles, depending on their size, intelligence and training. Over 53,000 dogs were used during the war.

Many dog breeds were used, but the most popular type of dogs were medium-sized, intelligent and trainable breeds. Other breeds that were smaller, such as terriers, were most often used as ‘ratters’, dogs trained to hunt and kill rats in the trenches.

Guard dogs were trained to accompany usually one specific guard and were taught to give a warning signal such as a growl, bark or snarl to indicate when an unknown presence was in the secure area such as a camp or military base.

Scout dogs were highly trained and had to be of a quiet, disciplined nature. Their job was to work with soldiers on foot, patrolling the terrain ahead of them. These dogs could detect enemy scent up to 1000 metres away. Instead of barking and drawing attention to the squad, the dogs would stiffen, raise their hackles and point, which indicated that the enemy was nearby.

Casualty or ‘mercy’ dogs were vital. These dogs were trained to find the wounded and dying on battlefields and were equipped with medical supplies to aid those suffering. Those soldiers who could help themselves to supplies would tend to their own wounds, while others, more gravely wounded, would seek the company of the dog to provide comfort, while they waited to die.

Dogs were also used as messengers and proved to be as reliable as soldiers in the dangerous job of running messages. The difficulties of trench warfare meant that communication was always a problem. Field communication systems were crude and there was always the very real possibility that vital messages from the front would never get back to headquarters or vice versa. Human runners were potentially large targets and were weighed down by their equipment and there was a good chance that they would not get through. In the heat of a battle, there was even less chance of a runner getting through, as the enemy’s artillery was likely to be pounding in front and behind them.

Dogs were the obvious solution to this pressing problem. A trained dog was faster than a human runner, presented less of a target to a sniper and could travel over any terrain. Above all, dogs proved to be extremely reliable if they were well trained.

The dog’s natural qualities of intelligence and devotion were valued and used by the forces in conflicts throughout the century. Among their many duties, they also laid telegraph wires, detected mines and dug out bomb victims. Many battled on despite horrific wounds and in terrifying circumstances to the limit of their endurance, showing bravery and loyalty to their handlers.


An estimated 500,000 Cats were deployed into the battleships and the trenches of the Great War. Their job was to kill the mice and rats that brought disease and ate the food of the soldiers. That was their official duty. Beyond that, the cats offered the lonely soldiers companionship and were oftentimes honored as mascots by the soldiers.


Surprisingly elephants were used during the war. The military had purchased most of England’s horses and sent them off to war. Many farmers and traders had to find alternative animals, but none more exotic than elephants.

One of the elephants was Lizzie; her task was important – she had to cart munitions, machines and scrap metal around the city, a job previously done by three horses taken off to war. But with the outbreak of the war she was enlisted to help with heavy labour, fitted with a harness and sent to work at a scrap metal merchant. Lizzie and other elephants also went on to work at farms ploughing fields and transporting hay.


Unlike the battles in Europe, which were bogged down in rain, mud and trenches, fighting in the Middle East meant having to deal with the extreme heat. Camels were initially used to transport equipment and supplies. However, the camel also became an effective means of transport for the fighting troops and a camel-mounted infantry brigade was established during World War 1.


When soldiers were working in the tunnels, they were always watching their candles and the canaries they carried with them. Flickering candles signaled a lack of oxygen while the canaries warned the soldiers of poison gas in the tunnels. Once the canary stopped singing and fell off its perch it was an obvious warning to the men to put on their gas masks as there were dangerous gases ahead.


Every creature that had been tested by the Army for gas-detection purposes had developed pneumonia — except for one, the common garden slug. The slug could endure many successive gassings and not be injured or have its ability to detect the presence of gas compromised. When exposed to very low concentrations of gas the slug would appear visibly distressed, this would allow soldiers in the trenches to put on their gas masks before they were exposed to harmful levels of gas. Slugs only served with Armed forces for five months but saved countless lives.


Glowworms were unlikely war animals, but nonetheless had a vital role on the battlefield and in the trenches because of their bioluminescence. As they huddled in the dank, dark trenches, soldiers would collect glowworms and store them in jars. They provided portable lights for officers to study intelligence reports and battle maps and were also used by the troops to read their comforting letters from home.


Military units identified themselves with adopted animal mascots, including goats, dogs, cats, horses, monkeys, bears, foxes and birds, just to name a few.

The animals lived on ships or at the base camps alongside the soldiers. Many soldiers had pets in and near the front line trenches. Small dogs and cats were most common. These animals helped soldiers normalize the harsh world of combat.

The most famous mascot was a black bear cub named Winnie. When Lt. Harry Colebourne was heading from Winnipeg to the training camp at Val Cartier, Quebec where he was to go for overseas duty during World War I, he came across a hunter in White River who had a female black bear cub for sale. The hunter had killed the cub’s mother and sold the cub to Harry for $20. He named her “Winnie’, after his adopted hometown Winnipeg, and took her with him across the Atlantic, where she became an unofficial mascot of The Fort Garry Horse. Harry was a member of the Royal Canadian Army Veterinary Corps, attached to The Fort Garry Horse as a veterinarian. While Harry served three years in France, he left Winnie at the London Zoo. Winnie’s eventual destination was to have been the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, but at the end of the war, Harry decided to allow Winnie to remain at the London Zoo, where she was much loved and delighted thousands of visitors. One of those visitors was a young boy named Christopher Robin who adored her and inspired his father to write the stories that we all know so well today.

Whatever the job, military animals have lived through the same experiences as humans in past and present wars. They have been exposed to enormous amounts of stress and performed their duties in hostile and frightening environments. They have lived through heavy machine gun and mortar fire, explosions and injuries, and have given their lives so that we may live.

They are heroes, their lives were risked to save ours – and they have saved countless lives. Many have received medals of honour for their acts of bravery. There are museums and memorials in many countries, including our own, built in their honour as there should be, because as the men and women who serve have a choice, the animals do not.

So today and every Remembrance Day, let’s remember all humans and all creatures great and small and wear your poppy – with pride – for them all.