Don’t for­get the dogs of war

The Courier & Advertiser (Angus and The Mearns Edition) - - NEWS | OPINION - An­gus Whit­son

To­mor­row marks the 100th an­niver­sary of the end of the First World War. The Doyenne and I shall at­tend our church Armistice ser­vice to com­mem­o­rate the stark events of the Great War – a hideous eu­phemism for those four years of con­flict and their bit­ter har­vest of sense­less death.

War has never been sim­ply a mat­ter of fight­ing, nor nec­es­sar­ily heroic. In war, courage al­ways con­trasts with cow­ardice, com­rade­ship and dis­ci­pline with the hor­ror and suf­fer­ing, and the ela­tion of vic­tory with the bit­ter­ness of de­feat. And then there is the psy­cho­log­i­cal af­ter­math of war – the civil­ian ca­su­al­ties, the be­reaved, the ex­pec­ta­tions of the re­turn­ing com­bat­ants.

We prop­erly ac­knowl­edge the debt owed to those who fought and died on our be­half, but how long can, and should, such com­mem­o­ra­tion con­tinue? We re­mem­ber Water­loo and Trafal­gar, but these now have his­toric rather than emo­tional sig­nif­i­cance.

The Ceno­taph, on White­hall, Lon­don, com­mem­o­rates “the con­tri­bu­tion of Bri­tish and Com­mon­wealth mil­i­tary and civil­ian ser­vice­men and women in the two World Wars and later con­flicts”. The an­nual Na­tional Ser­vice of Remembrance, led by the Queen, ex­presses the na­tion’s thanks to the gen­er­a­tions that served, and those that never re­turned. To para­phrase the evoca­tive words from Lau­rence Binyon’s poem, For The Fallen – they shall not grow old and we will re­mem­ber them.

A me­mo­rial slab of West­more­land slate in Po­ets’ Cor­ner in West­min­ster Abbey is in­scribed with the names of 16 of the Great War po­ets. With one ex­cep­tion, they are English.

Charles Hamil­ton Sor­ley, the one Scot, left Scot­land at the age of six and re­ceived all his ed­u­ca­tion in Eng­land. His po­etry shows lit­tle in­flu­ence of his Scot­tish con­tem­po­raries that one might have ex­pected had he re­mained in his coun­try of birth.

Of the 16, I hear only Wil­fred Owen’s name be­ing men­tioned at this time as much, it seems, for his po­etry as that he suf­fered shell shock – to­day’s PTSD – and re­ceived rev­o­lu­tion­ary ther­apy at Ed­in­burgh’s Craiglock­hart War Hospi­tal.

The Great War po­ets com­mem­o­rated in Po­ets’ Cor­ner wrote in time­less Stan­dard English, mak­ing them ac­ces­si­ble to the wider Bri­tish read­ing pub­lic gen­er­ally. The Scot­tish Great War po­ets, who in­clude Joseph Lee (Dundee’s for­got­ten war poet), JB Sal­mond who be­came ed­i­tor of The Scots Mag­a­zine, Hugh MacDiarmid and Vi­o­let Ja­cob – wife of a sol­dier and lost her only son, Harry, at the Somme in 1916 – wrote pre­dom­i­nantly in their ver­nac­u­lar braid Scots. Not­with­stand­ing the ver­nac­u­lar id­iom, in their time they were ranked along­side the best of the English war po­ets, but their work has, un­de­servedly, fallen into ob­scu­rity.

The Doyenne’s fa­ther lied about his age and ran away to war, get­ting as far as Ypres, where he was a sig­naller.

His true age was dis­cov­ered and he was sent home to Brad­ford, but re-en­listed as soon as he was old enough.

The fam­i­lies are thank­ful for his sur­vival and, though he rarely spoke of his ex­pe­ri­ences, he came back.

After so many years in eclipse, it would be good to think that Scot­land’s indige­nous po­etry could stage a re­vival. We owe an­other kind of debt to the po­ets who gave a voice to the sol­diers, sailors and air­men who did not re­turn, but whose mem­o­ries will al­ways be pre­served in the po­etry and can never be erased.

War dogs on the front­line

More than 20,000 dogs were trained for front­line du­ties in the First World War, the num­ber re­flect­ing the huge ca­su­al­ties they suf­fered. Many came from Bat­tersea Dogs Home, but fam­i­lies gave up their fam­ily pets and oth­ers were re­cruited from po­lice forces and an­i­mal pounds. Their con­tri­bu­tion in ac­tion and un­der fire, and to the morale of their hu­man com­rades was enor­mous. Pop­u­lar breeds were English sheep­dogs, re­triev­ers, point­ers and lurchers, with a leav­en­ing of “out-and-out curs” – tem­per­a­ment, in­tel­li­gence and re­silience, not breed­ing, be­ing the es­sen­tial qual­i­ties. Dash, a Border col­lie, was the mas­cot of B Com­pany, Ist Bat­tal­ion, 6th Black Watch. Airedale ter­ri­ers were widely used as ca­su­alty or mercy dogs, trained to seek out wounded sol­diers on the bat­tle­field and equipped with first aid kits which the men could use to treat them­selves.

A re­port, from the Dundee Evening Tele­graph in 1916, de­scribes the skills of trained watch­dogs: “A watch­dog never barks; at the most he will use a low growl to in­di­cate the pres­ence or ap­proach of a hos­tile force. More of­ten than not the mere prick­ing of the ears or the at­ti­tude of ex­pectancy is suf­fi­cient to put his han­dler on his guard.”

It was as mes­sen­gers and couri­ers that they car­ried out their most haz­ardous work. After the war, Lt Col Richard­son, com­man­dant of the War Dog School of In­struc­tion, was quoted in the Ab­erdeen Evening Ex­press, say­ing: “The skill, courage and tenac­ity of these dogs has been amaz­ing. Dur­ing heavy bar­rages, when all other forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion have been cut, the mes­sen­ger dogs have made their way, and in many cases have brought mes­sages of vi­tal im­por­tance.”

Like the po­etry, these days we don’t hear much about the war dogs ei­ther.

“Airedale ter­ri­ers were used as mercy dogs to seek out wounded sol­diers and equipped with first aid kits which the men could use to treat them­selves

Sea of pop­pies: The 100th an­niver­sary to­mor­row of the end of the First World War will be marked by Armistice ser­vices across the coun­try.

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