On Remembrance Day, we honour those who have fought for our freedom in wars past and present. Those who’ve paid the ultimate sacrifice and lost their lives, as well as those who’ve suffered physical or mental trauma as a result of the horrors they experienced through war. As well as the humans, we should also spare a thought for the animals who play an essential supporting role, both on and off battlefields. This Remembrance Day, let’s remember them too, alongside the people who they so bravely and loyally served. Animals have always played a vital role in war efforts. According to the army, it is estimated that up to 16 million animals served in World War I, including dogs, horses, donkeys, pigeons, camels, cats and canaries. Their roles varied from carrying messages to transporting food, water, medical supplies, ammunition and injured soldiers. Canaries were used to detect poisonous gases while cats kept the trenches clear of vermin. But they didn’t just serve a practical purpose either, they were important for the troops’ morale and provided company during long, lonely days and nights. Animals were often mascots, too – The Imperial War Museum reports that in 1918 No.32 Air Squadron had a fox cub as a mascot, while battleship HMS Dreadnought’s mascot was Togo the cat, and HMS Glasgow had Tirpitz the pig! Although inevitably lives were endangered in these combative conditions, the animals were always hugely respected and well cared for by troops; the importance of their roles was never underestimated. The Royal Army Veterinary Corps (RAVC) was officially established in 1918 and of the 2.5 million injured animals that they treated during World War I, over 85% returned to duty.
In World War II, animals once again played a crucial role, with many being awarded military medals to honour their service. Gustav the pigeon was one such case, having brought back the first news from the D-Day landings in Normandy. According to the Imperial War Museum, Gustav flew over 150 miles, from Northern France to Portsmouth, in around 5 hours on 6th June 1944, to deliver the message: “We are just 20 miles or so off the beaches. First assault troops landed 0750. Signal says no interference from enemy gunfire on beach…Steaming steadily in formation. Lightnings, typhoons, fortresses crossing since 0545. No enemy aircraft seen.” Gustav was awarded the Dickin Medal for his incredible effort.
Animals weren’t just used in the war effort overseas; they carried out essential work on the home front, too. Dogs, like Rip, a stray adopted by the Poplar ARP (Air Raid Precautions) in East London and Jet, a search and rescue Alsatian, searched the rubble after air raids and helped to find injured people and animals who were trapped. The efforts of dogs like Jet and Rip saved hundreds of civilian lives. Jet was awarded a medal after he and his handler recovered over 150 people from bombed buildings. Judy, the English pointer, was a mascot on HMS Grasshopper but was taken as a prisoner of war along with her crewmates when the ship was torpedoed by the Japanese. It’s reported that Judy was protective of the other POWs whilst imprisoned and helped to keep morale up. She was liberated in 1945 and awarded a Dickin medal for ‘magnificent courage and endurance in Japanese prison camps, which helped to maintain morale amongst her fellow prisoners and also for saving many lives through her intelligence and watchfulness.’
Today, according to the RAVC, there are over 500 horses and 900 dogs serving in the British Army. The Defence Animal Training Regiment (DATR) comprises canine, equine and veterinary squadrons and provides animal handling training for military personnel as well as role-specific training for hundreds of Military Working Animals every year. The importance of animals in the UK’s military
service is never underestimated and they are treated with immense respect and care. From search and rescue operations at home or overseas in emergency situations, to armed combat or even miliary parades, military animals know their roles and carry them out faithfully and dutifully. According to the Royal British Legion, some units also have military mascots, animals maintained for ceremonial purposes, which holding their own military number and rank… and these aren’t necessarily the animals you’d expect to see in the armed forces! Close to home, Lance Corporal Derby XXXII is a Swaledale ram who’s the Mercian Regimental mascot. LCPL Derby is one of very few official mascots in the British Army and, as such, has his own regimental number, issued by the Army Veterinary Corps and is funded by the Crown. He even has his own Twitter (X) account if you want to give him a follow! https://twitter.com/private_derby. Like any other soldier, these mascots can be promoted and demoted and Lance Corporal Derby was promoted from Private to Lance Corporal for good behaviour. He has even met King Charles! Other unusual British military mascots include a Shetland pony called Pegasus and, believe it or not, up until 2005 the Royal Warwickshire Regiment had an antelope mascot named Bobby!
So, this Remembrance Day, whilst we remember all of the troops who’ve lost their lives and all those who’ve fought in any wars, let’s also spare a moment to give our thoughts and thanks to the animals who’ve bravely supported them along the way, at home or overseas, in any role. We know how amazing animals can be and there’s no doubt whatsoever that they’re a key part of our military services, both past and present.
“At the going down of the sun and in the morning. We will remember them.”