Don’t forget the dogs of war
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.