Here in Britain we are a nation of animal lovers so it’s probably not that hard for most of us to understand how dogs could have provided comfort, companionship, and a positive effect on morale for soldiers at war who were missing home comforts. On the Western Front, a dog would have provided a great psychological comfort to the men enduring the cold, wet and bleak horrors of trench warfare.
But, many of these furry friends were also there for very practical reasons and dogs, like horses and pigeons, had an important role to play in World War One. Field communication systems were slow and crude in the trenches and sending messages posed a problem — there was always a possibility that vital information couldn’t be shared between the front and HQ. The use of vehicles in transporting messages was a pain as they could break down and also eat up the mud making the environment even more difficult to traverse. Human runners were large, easy targets for the enemy. Trained dogs solved this communication problem — a pooch could travel over almost any terrain and was faster and more discreet than a human runner. Messages were put in tins around the necks of dogs and they were identified by a scarlet collar or tally. Dogs were extremely dependable and faithful if they were trained properly and as well as being very quick and reliable messengers, dogs proved also to be a great asset when it came to tracking the enemy, detecting explosives and finding wounded soldiers on the battlefield. Dogs used during WWI included Border Collies, Lurchers, English Sheepdogs, Retrievers and mongrels. The Airedale Terrier was probably the most common breed used by the British in World War One though. The Red Cross also commonly used them to find wounded soldiers.
An Airedale called Jack One story that stood out to me while I was researching this subject was that of an Airedale named Jack, who apparently helped save a British battalion in 1918. Jack went to France as a messenger and guard with the Sherwood Foresters, who were sent to man an advance post. There was an intense barrage four miles behind the lines, cutting off every line of communication with HQ. Unless HQ could be informed that reinforcements were needed pronto, the entire battalion risked being killed by the advancing enemy. It was impossible for any man to dodge the fire, but Airedale Jack provided a small chance and a glimmer of hope. The vital message was slipped into the a pouch attached to the dog's collar, and this loyal and courageous canine, keeping low to the ground, ran through a barrage of enemy fire for half a mile to deliver the message to HQ. When he got there he was badly injured – his jaw was broken, and one leg was severely splintered. He did his duty, delivered the message, then dropped dead at the receiver’s feet. This sad story really sums up the dedication and determination that some of these dogs showed in battle. The 'Dickin Medal', awarded to animals that have performed heroic deeds, was not around during WWI, but if it had been Airedale Jack would have surely earned one. Dogs and animals in general are often among the forgotten forces of World War I, but many died or were injured helping the forces of all sides. Pigeons were important messengers too. Sources: Wiki & Soldierdog.net.
Do you have any stories of animals and war? Perhaps there have been stories passed down through your family from your military ancestors about courageous animals that played a part during war. Maybe you could find out more about your family's military history - visit Forces War Records and search our vast collection of records – there could be a war hero in your family just waiting to be discovered and remembered…