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WW1 Trench Warfare

What did dogs do in World War I?

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December 09, 2013 2:20PM

Dogs had a vital part to play in World War One. The complexes of trenches spread throughout the Western Front. Dogs were used as messengers and proved to be as reliable as soldiers in the dangerous job of running messages.

The complexities of trench warfare meant that communication was always a problem. Field communication systems were crude and there was always the very real possibility that vital messages from the front would never get back to headquarters or vice versa. Human runners were potentially large targets and weighed down by uniforms there was a chance that they would not get through. In the heat of a battle, there was even less of a chance of a runner getting through as the enemy's artillery was likely to be pounding your frontline and the area behind it. Vehicles were also problematic as they could breakdown or the 'roads' could have been reduced to a mushy pulp and travel on them made impossible.

Dogs were the obvious solution to this pressing problem. A trained dog was faster than a human runner, presented less of a target to a sniper and could travel over any terrain. Above all, dogs proved to be extremely reliable if they were well trained. A dog training school was established in Scotland and a recruit from this school traveled over 4000 metres on the Western Front with an important message to a brigade's headquarters. The dog traveled this distance (war records classed it as "very difficult" terrain) in less than sixty minutes. All other methods of communicating with the headquarters had failed - but the dog had got through.

Dogs also had another role to play on the Western Front. For men trapped in the horrors of trench warfare, a dog in the trenches (whether a messenger dog or not) was a psychological comfort that took away, if only for a short time, the horrors they lived through. It is said that Adolf Hitler kept a dog with him in the German trenches. For many soldiers on any of the sides that fought in the trenches, a dog must have reminded them of home comforts.

Lt.-Col. E.H. Richardson who ran the War Dog Training School was mainly responsible for the appearance of messenger dogs in the British Army in WW1.

Originally the idea to use dogs came from the Red Cross who wanted to use ambulance dogs on the western front, but this idea was deemed unsuccessful as early as the battle of Antwerp, the French in fact banned the use of ambulance dogs within a few weeks of the war beginning. Lt-Col Richardson then started training sentry and patrol dogs around about autumn 1914 and found the Airedale to be well suited for this task, he also supplied the Belgian Army with some of these animals. In the winter of 1916 he trained and supplied two Airedales (Wolf and Prince) at the request of the Royal Artillery for use as message carriers, they both served with great success with the 56th Brigade RFA, 11th Div. at Wytschaete Ridge and prompted further investigation into the use of dogs as runners.

Some dogs were trained in Flanders

The Official sanction of the use of dogs in war was given with the opening of the War Dog Training School in Shoeburyness. After a trial and error period in France a Maj. Waley MC RE, was appointed supervisor of all dog operations in the field, once the dogs arrived in France. The main Kennels were at Etaples under the command of the RE Signal Corps. who took over the operations in early 1917, with sectional kennels belonging to Corps HQ Kennels not far behind the front line, each Sectional kennel had on Average:

Sergeant-in-Charge

16 Handlers

48 Dogs

The handlers and Sgt-in-C all came from RE Signals Corps. The dogs then went to the active sectors at the ratio of 3 dogs to 1 handler, who then handed them over to selected individuals from the infantry Btns in the designated Brigade. The original handler was then based at the Brig HQ to oversee the dogs operations.

As to the types of dogs, originally they came from the Battersea Dogs Home in London, then as demand grew from the Bristol, Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester Dogs home. As demand even outstripped these 'suppliers' an official order went out to all police forces in the UK to send all strays to the War Dog School, and even after this the general public were asked to send in any dogs they were unable to keep properly with the ration system in effect. This last idea was more successful than originally thought, and many of the general public sent in their dogs.

The WDTS at Shoeburyness was moved to Matley Ridge, Lyndhurst in 1918 until May 1919 when it was finally moved to Bulford on Salisbury Plains.

Breeds of Dogs Used

Border Collies

Airedales

Lurchers

English Sheepdogs (must have been fun grooming them after a day in the trenches)

Retrievers

Summer Dogs. A term that includes the famous Heinz Terrier, i.e. 57 Varieties.; also called Summer Dogs because they are "Summer This" and "Summer That", in other words, mongrels.

The messages went in tins slung around the neck and the dogs were identified by a scarlet tally or collar. It was a grievous offence to stop a dog in the line of duty.

Source:

"British War Dogs; their training and psychology" by Lt.-Col. E.H. Richardson, Pub. Skeffington & Son, 34 Paternoster Row, EC4

Message dogs were trained to leap barbed wire

The French and German armies in particular used dogs. The French and Germans trained about 50,000 dogs. This was the largestest number of dogs ever used in warfare, but was only a fraction of the number used in World War II. The British established a dog training school in Scotland. When the Americans arrived in France, not only were the AEF soldiers largely untrained, but they lacked trained dogs. The British and Belgians loaned trained dogs to the Americans.

We do not have a lot of information about what happened to the war dogs after World War I in Europe. Of course many were killed or wounded during the War and had to be put down. Large numbers survived the War. The Germans in particular had huge numbers of dogs. We think many German dogs also had to be euthenized because of the difficult economic conditions. We are not sure about France. The British had fewer dogs. One chnge in Britain was that the name of the German shepherd was changed to Alsatian because of the anti-German sentiment, the same sentiment that forced the Royal Family to change their name. The situation in America was different. There were very few German shepherds in America before World War I. They are virtually absent from the photographic record. This changed after the War. The American German shepherd dog club was not founded until just before the War (1913). The War created great interest in the breed among Anericans and an appreciation for its characteristics. American soldiers had come to admire the breed. Many returned with desire to own one. Others actually brought shepherds home with them. The intelligence and nobel appearance of the breed caught the imagination of the dog owning public. And they were even chosen to become movie stars--Rin-Tin-Tin and Strongheart. These movies were churned out with the various interations of the "boy and his dog" theme. Some Americans called them police dogs. What had been a rather rare breed in America became one of the most popular breeds. The American Army, however, did not institute a dog training program.

Germany

We are not sure what German Army policy was toward the dogs. Presumably many of the handlers wanted to bring their dogs home. One would think that might be difficult if they lived in cramped city aprtments. Nor are we sure to what extent war dogs could become docile family pets. We do no yet have complete details on what happened. We do know that in the last year of the war, shortages developed on the home front leading to a collapse of civilian morale. Germany at the time of World War I was not self sufficentv in food production and the Allied naval blockade cut off food imports. Even so, the Government did not implemebt an effective rationing program or take steps to excuse agricultural workers from cinscription. As a result, domestic harvests declined. Some authors describe a famine. That may be an over-statement, but there were severe shortages and many people experienced real deprivations. Some children appear to have starved or at least sucumbed to illness because they were famished. In such aituations, many people could not keep their pets. Some dogs starved, others were eaten by their owners. Dog experts report that many war dogs were sterile or gave birth to high numbers of stillborn pups. This may have been the result of massive Army breeding programs. Postwar veterinary care and access to canine medicine was very limited. Canine diseases as aesult ran rampant. German shepherd breeders in Germany worked to restore the breed. We do know that as Germany became to rearm in the 1930s, the Wehrmacht instituted and even larger dog program.

Horses and Mules

Animals played an important role in World War I. The most important were the horse and mule. World War I was the first important European War since ancient times in which the calvalry did not play an important role. All the major combatant countries began the War with important calvalry forces, but found that changes in weaponry and aerial reconisance had rendered horse calvalry obsolete. Even so, the horse was still important as a draft animal. By all accounts, the horse was the most important animal during the War. All of the combatant forces used draft animals to transport supplies and equipment as well as to move artillery. A British reader tells us that there is a monument in London dedicated to the donkey in war. Gradually trucks were introduced. The American Expeditionary Force brought a huge number of trucks with it. And the War would prove to be a dividing line between horse-draw carts and waggons and trucks. After the War, improved trucks rapidly replaced horses in America. The process was slower in Europe. Trucks were particularly useful behind the lines, but often could not negotiate the muddy and torn up terraine at the front.
they poo sleep and run poo sleep and run and die