Un­sung heroes, an­i­mals played vi­tal roles in WWI

The Republican Herald - - FRONT PAGE - BY ELAINE GANLEY

PARIS — They were mes­sen­gers, spies and sen­tinels. They led cav­alry charges, car­ried sup­plies to the front, com­forted wounded sol­diers and died by the mil­lions dur­ing World War I.

Horses, mules, do gs, pi­geons and even a ba­boon all were a vi­tal — and for decades over­looked — part of the Al­lied war ma­chine.

Re­searchers have been hard- pressed to find of­fi­cial ac­counts of the ser­vices ren­dered by an­i­mals dur­ing the Great War. But if their labors once were taken for granted, four- legged and winged war­riors have been ac­knowl­edged more re­cently as un­sung heroes.

France re­cently de­cided to rec­og­nize their wartime role. And in 2004, Bri­tain in­stalled a huge me­mo­rial on the edge of London’s Hyde Park to “all the an­i­mals that served, suf­fered and died along­side the Bri­tish, Com­mon­wealth and Al­lied forces in the wars and con­flicts of the 20th cen­tury.”

What they did

An es­ti­mated 10 mil­lion horses and mules, 100,000 dogs and 200,000 pi­geons were en­rolled in the war ef­fort, ac­cord­ing to Eric Baratay, a French his­to­rian spe­cial­iz­ing in the response of an­i­mals to the chaos, fear and smells of death in the mis­sion that man thrust upon them.

World War I marked the start of in­dus­trial war­fare, with tanks, trucks, air­craft and ma­chine guns in ac­tion. But the grow­ing so­phis­ti­ca­tion of the in­stru­ments of death couldn’t match the dog tasked with find­ing the wounded, the horses and mules haul­ing mu­ni­tions and food or the pi­geons serv­ing as telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions op­er­a­tors or even eyes, carry- ing “pi­geon­grams” or tiny cam­eras to record Ger­man po­si­tions.

“They were quasi- com­bat­ants,” said Serge Bar­cellini, comptroller gen­eral of the Armed Forces and head of Le Sou­venir Fran­cais — The French Mem­ory — in a re­cent speech de­voted to the role played by beasts of war.

In­deed, gas masks were fit­ted to the muz­zles of four­legged war­riors brav­ing nox­ious bat­tle­field fumes.

In France, as in Bri­tain and else­where, horses and mules were req­ui­si­tioned.

One typ­i­cal sign posted in south­ern Paris or­dered cit­i­zens to present their steeds and mules to the Req­ui­si­tion Com­mit­tee by Nov. 14, 1914, or risk “pros­e­cu­tion by the mil­i­tary author­ity.” It was be­com­ing clear there would be no quick end to the war that ground on for four more years.

feath­ered heroes

Cher Ami, or Dear Friend, the car­rier pi­geon who wouldn’t quit, lived up to her name, sav­ing the lives of 194 Amer­i­can troops of the “Lost Bat­tal­ion” of the 77th In­fantry Divi­sion, iso­lated be­hind en­emy lines dur­ing the 1918 Meuse- Ar­gonne of­fen­sive in eastern France.

About 550 men had held their ground against a far

larger Ger­man force for days be­fore coming un­der fire from Amer­i­can troops un­aware the trapped sol­diers weren’t the en­emy.

On Oct. 4, Maj. Charles Whit­tle­sey sent Cher Ami into the skies with afi­nalm es­sage giv­ing the U.S. bat­tal­ion’ s

lo­ca­tion, fol­lowed by a plea: “For heaven’s sake stop it.”

Cher Ami lost an eye and a

leg from Ger­man gun­fire, but kept fly­ing, around 25 miles in about a half- hour, ac­cord­ing to the United States World War One Cen­ten­nial Com­mis­sion. Sur­vivors of the“Lost Bat­tal­ion” re­turned to Amer­i­can lines four days later.

An­other car­rier pi­geon named Vail­lant, as­signed to the French mil­i­tary, also per­formed ex­tra­or­di­nary feats dur­ing the war.

On June 4, 1916, he was re­leased into the sky with the des­per­ate mes­sage, “He’s my

last pi­geon.”

French Com­man­der Syl­vain Eu­gene Ray­nal, en­cir­cled by Ger­mans at the Fort de Vaux near Ver­dun, was count­ing on Vail­lant to save his men.

T he feisty bird flew through toxic gas and smoke, reach­ing the Ver­dun pi­geon

loft choked by fumes. With no help ar­riv­ing de­spite Vail

lant’s coura­geous ef­fort, Ray­nal and his men sur­ren­dered three days later.

round ‘ em up

Horses are an­cient war­riors, but most of those con­scripted dur­ing World War I weren’t war- ready. They died by the mil­lions, from dis­ease, ex­haus­tion and en­emy fire, forc­ing the French and Bri­tish armies to turn to Amer­ica to re­new their sup­ply. A ver­i­ta­ble in­dus­try de­vel­oped with more than half a mil­lion horses and mules shipped by boat to Europe by fall 1917, ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can Bat­tle Mon­u­ments Com­mis­sion.

So im­por­tant was the com­merce that the Santa Fe Rail­road named a sta­tion Drage, af­ter Bri­tish Lt. Col. F. B. Drage, the com­man­der of the Bri­tish Re­mount Com­mis­sion in Lathrop, Mis­souri, a ma­jor stock­yard for the fu­ture beasts of war.

“So the war busi­ness in horses and mules is good,” read an ar­ti­cle in the De­cem­ber 1915 is­sue of The Santa Fe Mag­a­zine, for em­ploy­ees of the rail­way sys­tem. Good for the farmer, con­trac­tor, sup­plier and rail­roads, it said, but “not good for the an­i­mals.”

ser­vice by ex­otics

Among the more ex­otic an­i­mals called into ser­vice was a ba­boon named Jackie, who served with the 1st South African In­fantry Brigade in then Bri­tish- oc­cu­pied Egypt and later in the trenches in France and Bel­gium. His acute hear­ing and keen eye­sight helped warn sol­diers of en­emy move­ment or pos­si­ble at­tacks when he would screech and tug on their cloth­ing.

Jackie was wounded in Flan­ders Fields when the South African brigade came un­der heavy shelling in April 1918 and his leg had to be am­pu­tated.


Sol­diers move to­ward the front with their ma­chine guns and am­mu­ni­tion pulled by dogs dur­ing World War I in Bel­gium.

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