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
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