The demise of most equines in the war was largely due to the modern invention of the machine gun that cut them down unmercifully. Many died from disease, starvation, or exposure; horses were often reduced to shivering bags of skin and bones, even resorting to chewing on their own blankets for food. Exploding mortars, barbed wire, mange, thirst, wounds, and parasite infestation, were all contributing factors to injury and death.
Exhaustion and disease such as Grass Sickness and bouts of colic claimed many victims. To add insult to injury, unwanted warhorses were auctioned off and sold to butchers at the war’s conclusion.Next to our connection with dogs and cats, perhaps the deepest bond humans have developed over time is with horses. In my opinion, the horse has done more for us than any other domesticated animal – that is, horses lie at the very foundation of our human civilization.
I wanted to share an op-ed piece from the Calgary Herald, published November 19, 2015. Carol Tracey is an advocate/activist for animal welfare and the environment who often quotes Gandhi: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” I hope you enjoy it as much as I did….
By Carol Tracey
Whether attending a Remembrance Day service or simply paying respects to those who gave their lives in conflicts, how many people actually study the sculpture of the men and horses at the core of the National War Memorial in Ottawa?
A comment on one of the war memorial sites states: “The sculptor did an amazing job of capturing the raw emotion of the men.” I believe that the horses were sculpted to impart the very real fear that they, too, must have felt. And how many people realize that, on Nov. 3, 2012, another monument was unveiled in Confederation Park in Ottawa honouring the contribution of animals in war?
Staggering numbers of animals have been involved in war efforts, including millions of horses. Other species, either as mascots or as working animals, included dogs, pigeons, mules, canaries, donkeys, cats and goats, and even glow worms. Dogs and horses are still utilized by the military in a variety of arenas, including offering solace to soldiers suffering with PTSD.
During the First World War, eight million horses were killed, another two and a half million injured while they toiled in horrendous conditions transporting soldiers and equipment through the muck on the battlefields. The majority of these horses were acquired from their owners in the United States and Canada, and from the farms and factories in England. Some of these animals have received the Dickin Medal (some posthumously) for exceptional bravery — one of them being Warrior, who was the inspiration for the book, movie and play War Horse.
In 1943, the Dickin Medal of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals was instituted by the charity’s founder, Maria Dickin. It is recognized as the highest award with which an animal may be feted while serving in military conflict. It is equivalent to an animal receiving the Victoria Cross. Since its introduction, 65 of these prestigious medals have been awarded to 29 dogs, 32 Second World War messenger pigeons, three horses (not including Warrior) and one cat. The last recipient was a military working dog named Sasha, who died while on patrol in Afghanistan. She was awarded the medal, posthumously, in May 2014.
So many of these animals were a source of comfort and safety to the soldiers. Lieut.-Col. John McCrae’s dog companion was Bonneau, whom he befriended at Ypres in 1915, and Gander, a Newfoundland dog, was instrumental in saving the lives of Canadian infantrymen during the battle of Lye Mun in December 1941 by seizing a live grenade that had landed near the soldiers. Gander died when the grenade exploded. His name is etched on the Hong Kong Veterans’ Memorial Wall that was unveiled in August 2009.
In the camps, cats and dogs offered respite from the rigours of battle and many of the horse drivers were especially caring of their charges. Some drivers believed that these animals were capable of a sensitivity that many humans lack and were heartbroken when, after the war, their horses were not allowed to accompany them home.
Who is familiar with Sergeant Bill, Saskatchewan’s most famous goat, who is a First World War decorated hero? Bill saved the lives of soldiers while he was on the front lines by head butting them out of the path of a shell. Wounded during the line of duty, Bill was promoted to sergeant, and when the war ended, he was reunited with his owner.
Probably the most famous mascot was Winnie, a black bear cub, who was a favourite with the soldiers. However, when her owner, Lieut. Harry Colebourn, was ordered to France, he arranged for Winnie to be housed at the London Zoo. A statue of this famous bear has been on display since 1981.
Monuments around the world that recognize the exploits of soldiers very rarely, if ever, acknowledge the immense contribution and sacrifices of the millions of animals who had no choice in serving their countries. These animals deserve a special place in Canada’s history, and the Animals in War Dedication, located in Confederation Park, is a fitting tribute and a solemn reminder of the debt we owe them.