Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Lest We Forget - Animals In War

Last week millions of people across the world held a two minute silence on Remembrance Day to remember the soldiers who died to give us the freedom we have today. Both wars were extremely horrific and saw severe loss of life. In World War One, an estimated 10 million people died in military action. During World War Two there were a lot more civilian fatalities, with an estimated 40 million civilian deaths and 20 million military deaths.

However, it wasn't just people who served their country during the war. Often the forgotten army of war, thousands of animals have also been at the forefront of the action, putting their lives at risk to save ours. The purple poppy represents their sacrifice, while the red poppy represents the sacrifice by our soldiers.

As dependable as soldiers, dogs played a crucial role in sniffing out enemies, carrying supplies, finding the wounded, delivering messages, ratters and most importantly companionship. The idea to use them first came from the Red Cross, who wanted to use ambulance dogs on the front line and by 1918 Britain had employed more than 20,000 dogs in war.

Messenger dogs were vital to the service because they could overcome the difficulties that soldiers and vehicles faced in the heart of battle. They were able to run a lot faster, could travel over any terrain and were less likely to be shot at by a sniper. The trenches were a complex system to navigate and messages could easily be lost, running the risk that an important letter would not make it to the front line or headquarters. Soldiers were an obvious target and vehicles were likely to break down or get stuck in the deep mud that savaged the battlefield.

Casualty dogs were also known as "mercy dogs" and were trained to find those who were wounded or dying on the battlefield. They were even equipped with medicine, so that the soldiers could tend to their wounds while they waited to be found. Sadly, in the case of those who were too far gone, the dogs simply sat and comforted them until they passed away.

Dobermans were particularly used as sentry dogs and tended to patrol the military bases with a handler, warning them with a bark when someone approached. On the other hand, scout dogs had to be very quiet and worked with soldiers by patrolling the area in front of them. As a dog's nose is so sensitive, they were able to detect an enemy scent up to 1,000 yards away and quicker than a soldier ever could. If they found someone, they would simply stiffen and point their tails to indicate that the enemy was approaching. That way the soldiers could prepare themselves and hopefully take the other side by surprise.

Dogs were not just used on the front line though. Animal Rescue Squads were set up during World War Two, when the Blitz began to terrorise London, to try and save the numerous people who were trapped under bombed out buildings. One Alsatian, Irma, saved hundreds of people and memorably two young girls who were trapped under a house. She sniffed them out and refused to move until rescuers had moved in to release the girls from the rubble.

However, it wasn't just man's best friend who helped with the war effort. Pigeons were used extensively to deliver messages during both World Wars, with 250,000 used in World War Two alone. As a result, racing with these birds was stopped and many birds of prey were killed along the coasts of Britain, so that pigeons would not be attacked while delivering an important message.

One pigeon, named Mary, delivered an important message despite being attacked by a hawk in France and returned with injuries to her neck and breast. On a different occasion, she returned with a wing tip shot off. Another pigeon called Royal Blue flew an astonishing 120 miles in 4 hours and and 10 minutes after the aircraft he was in was forced to land. He was able to pass on a message containing the location of the rest of the crew.

Horses were also used extensively during both World Wars as modes of transport, as well as pulling the heavy artillery the forces used at this time. Sadly, at the beginning of World War One, many horses were employed for use in the cavalry. Many died due to trench warfare, barbed wire (which was found across No Man's Land) and machine guns, so the forces stopped using horses in the cavalry section.

Recorded figures show that more than 8 million horses died during these wars and one factor was because once the fighting was over, there was no way to bring them home. Only 62,000 actually made it back to England, which is a devastating thought. These horses had carried soldiers through the heart of battle, often coming across weapons that were miles more advanced that what Britain used and then at the end of this, they were simply discarded.

At the time, there was a shortage of horses going into the war and so many were forced to give up their farm horses for the war effort. This is highlighted in the theatre production "War Horse", which has been given excellent reviews worldwide. Based on the book by Michael Morpurgo, the play centres around a young man Albert, whose horse Joey is taken away to fight in the war.

Albert follows him out there and every move he makes is in the hope that eventually he will find Joey again. I won't tell you the ending of this story, but I can assure you that I shed many tears throughout as the plight of Joey and the millions of horses used in the war is told.

This was also made into a film by Steven Spielberg and I would recommend both the the play and the film because they are both individual interpretations in their own right. While Spielberg's film is magnificent and features beautiful scenery, the play is also special because as it continues, you forget that there are people operating the puppets and the horses aren't real.

As a result of the bravery shown by all the animals who served in war and just after World War Two, the PDSA's founder Maria Dickin introduced a medal especially for animals. The Dickin Medal is essentially the animals' Victoria Cross and is awarded to those animals who are devoted to duty while serving or who are associated with the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units. This is the highest honour any animal can receive while serving in war.

Since 1943, this medal has been awarded 64 times to a grand total of 32 pigeons, 28 dogs, three horses and one cat. And what a fitting tribute it is to all those animals who have contributed to the war effort both her and abroad.

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