Beasts of bur­den dur­ing the Great War

Aux­il­iary vet­eri­nary nurse from the Barn­field House Vet­eri­nary Cen­tre, Laura Brown com­pletes her fas­ci­nat­ing se­ries about the role of an­i­mals dur­ing the Great War by look­ing at cir­cus an­i­mals

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THOME in Bri­tain, the war brought a huge de­mand for scrap metal to be turned into steel. Soon tons of it needed to be hauled from junk­yards to fac­to­ries. And that posed a prob­lem. Au­to­mo­biles were not yet wide­spread, and new ones were only be­ing pro­duced for mil­i­tary use.

Ad­di­tion­ally most of Bri­tain’s horses had gone to the front. How to trans­port the scrap? One scrap dealer in Sh­effield, Thomas Ward, came up with a novel – and gi­gan­tic – so­lu­tion.

Ward went to Wil­liam Sedg­wick, the owner of a trav­el­ling menagerie that had found it im­pos­si­ble to tour since the out­break of war. After a bit of ne­go­ti­a­tion, they reached an ar­range­ment sat­is­fac­tory to both, and Ward walked away with an Asian ele­phant called Lizzie.

Asian ele­phants (un­like their African cousins, which can­not be tamed) had long been do­mes­ti­cated and used as beasts of bur­den in South Asia.

Lizzie soon proved that she could haul as much metal as three horses. It was said that she was even able to move an en­gine that had be­come stuck in the snow. To this day, peo­ple in Sh­effield de­scribe some­one weighed down with bags or parcels as ‘done up like Tommy Ward’s ele­phant.’

Many sto­ries are told about Lizzie’s an­tics. She is said to have eaten a school­boy’s cap and helped her­self to food by stick­ing her trunk through kitchen win­dows. Oddly, though, there seems to be no record of what hap­pened to her after the war. One legend says that her feet were dam­aged by Sh­effield’s cob­ble­stone streets, and she had to re­tire.

Lizzie was not the only sur­pris­ing an­i­mal to be seen work­ing in Bri­tain dur­ing the war. With the horses away in bat­tle, ex­otic an­i­mals of all kinds were drafted in to help work at home.

Camels helped to pull loads, while ele­phants from Lord Sanger’s Cir­cus worked on farms in Sur­rey.

A cin­ema news­reel from the time shows one of th­ese ele­phants op­er­at­ing a wa­ter pump with its trunk, and another pick­ing up bales of hay and toss­ing them over its back into a cart. The ele­phants also ploughed fields.

The use of cir­cus an­i­mals in this way shows just how de­pen­dent every­day life at the time was on an­i­mal labour. Be­tween the first do­mes­ti­ca­tion of beasts of bur­den in the sixth to fourth mil­len­nia BC and the wide­spread adop­tion of mo­torised trans­port in the 1920s and ‘30s, an­i­mals were all that stood be­tween hu­man be­ings and back­break­ing labour.

But that was not the only use hu­mans had for an­i­mals. An­i­mals from the cir­cus were nor­mally used for en­ter­tain­ment. They were kept in con­di­tions very dif­fer­ent from their nat­u­ral habi­tat and made to per­form ‘tricks’ in­stead of their nor­mal be­hav­iour.

To­day, peo­ple are less likely to think of an­i­mals as be­ing pri­mar­ily for hu­man use. We now recog­nise that an­i­mals have feel­ings and needs of their own.

It was due to this in­creased aware­ness that the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment last year an­nounced plans for a ban on all wild an­i­mals in cir­cuses by the end of 2015.

Lizzie the ele­phant was pressed into ser­vice from a lo­cal cir­cus to help de­liver goods for Thomas Ward and Co who with­out the help from the cir­cus an­i­mals could have gone out of business

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