Animals at war: Slugs and mail and puppy dog tails

The memorial to Animals at War in Hyde Park, London
The memorial to Animals at War in Hyde Park, London

There is a truly beautiful memorial at Park Lane’s Brook Gate in London’s Hyde Park.

Unveiled by the Princess Royal in November 2004, it is a memorial to all the animals that have died

in the service of man during the wars of the 20th century.

Sculptor David Backhouse has achieved what few sculptors have managed to achieve, the human emotions of pity, elation and, hidden collective guilt.

Some 200 years

ago, the great German writer Heinrich Heine observed: “Ordinarily he is insane, but he has lucid moments when he is only stupid.”

A grim sight from the first world war as slaughtered horses are buried in a pit

A grim sight from the first world war as slaughtered horses are buried in a pit

He was referring to an acquaintance, but he could just as easily

have been referring to ‘Man’ – homo sapiens, because the description certainly fits. Heine penned many other gems including: “Where they burn books, they will eventually burn people.”

Well, if the gods judge us on the way we have treated the animals of this planet… We’re all going to Hell in a handcart!

Oh!..and just WHAT did the British and Germans use slugs for? Keep reading and you’ll find out!

Wars are usually the result of 
the paranoid, power-filled schemes of ‘inadequates’.

They are usually, but not exclusively men, with physical, mental or sexual problems. Kaiser Wilhelm II, ‘Kaiser Bill’, he of the withered arm and sulking attitude, delighted in sending the young men of Germany to war. Fires of jingoistic patriotism spread through Europe, and men in their millions flocked to ‘Serve the Flag’. Their animals had no choice! They too, died in their millions, through injury, disease and starvation.

This article is specifically about animal use in the Great War, but a brief catalogue of some of the more bizarre cruelties should be mentioned… even if they are difficult to believe.

From insects to primates, they’ve all been used in warfare, from the first recorded use of ‘war-dogs’ by Hammurabi, the sixth king of Babylon (1750 -1792 BC) whose codes of law were the first to be compiled by humanity, to the present day.

Most people have heard of Hannibal Barca, the Carthaginian general who waged war against Rome by crossing the Alps with his army and its elephants.

Hannibal had also been a shrewd naval commander. Outnumbered by the enemy fleet of the King of Pergamum (Eumenes II) and literally about to go under, Hannibal ordered hundreds of clay pots to be hurled on to the decks of the enemy galleys. The jars contained venomous snakes which, when released from the smashed containers, caused mass panic among the crews and saved the day for Hannibal. Incidentally, history does not record what fun was had or how the snakes were put into the jars in the first place.

Hannibal is famous for his use of ‘elephant tanks’ against the Romans, Gauls, etc, but he certainly wasn’t the first to use elephants in war, or the last. They were used against British forces as recently as the Anglo-Sikh wars of 1845 -1849.

Another ‘animal tank’ … equally dangerous, seriously unpredictable and faster, was the rhinoceros! Armoured Asian rhinos had been used against war elephants by the Portugese in the late 15th century … but the prize for ingenuity and bravery (?) must go to the natives of Assam in North East India. They would fill their ‘rhino-weapon’ with alcohol, wait until it was facing the ranks of the enemy, and then poke a part of its vulnerable backside with a sharp stick. The berserk rhino–missile would hurtle straight at (hopefully) the terrified enemy!

Another anti-elephant device was smoky bacon! The Romans sought to reverse the charges of Hannibal’s elephants by covering pigs in pitch, setting them alight and releasing them. The squeals and smell of the oncoming hamburgers scattered the terrified jumbos.

The Chinese, inventors of many things including gunpowder, used oxen both as a beast of burden and as a weapons delivery system. Gunpowder filled panniers were strapped to the creatures, who were then herded towards the enemy with fuses burning. The result was pure carnage.

The great Genghis Khan employed a similar tactic at the Siege of Volohoi, China (c AD1210).

The equestrian Mongol horde, thwarted by Volohoi’s impenetrable city walls, resorted to a siege mentality. The proven tactic began to take its toll as the starving inhabitants began to drop dead.

The survivors pleaded with the Khan to lift the siege, and to their amazement he agreed, but only after they had collected hundreds of cats and caged swallows demanded of them by crafty old Genghis.

If this story is true, one wonders why they hadn’t already eaten the cats? Anyway, not wanting the truth to get in the way of a good story – doubtless, there was much celebration in the city when the Mongols, equipped with their creature conscripts, disappeared over the hills and far away. But, unfortunately for the Chinese, they came back!

Out of the view of Chinese eyes, the Mongols had been tying rags to the tails of the cats and birds. At the base of the city walls the unlucky creatures were ignited. They flew and fled back into the wooden-built city, the resulting fires distracting the defenders sufficiently for the Mongols to get over the walls – and massacre everyone in sight.

A similar tactic was considered in WWII, but this time with bats instead of cats.

In 1942 an American dental surgeon by the name of Lytle Adams proposed using a species of American bat (American free-tailed) as an incendiary bomb. His idea was that hibernating bats, with explosives sewn into their belly skin, having been dropped from a bomber over Japan, would wake up in mid-drop, start flying, and take shelter in the many wooden houses of Japan’s cities. He predicted that once they were safely hanging upside down in their new wooden homes, they would start chewing on the irritant explosives which would set off the charge. Everything would burn to the ground and Japan would surrender.

During the first trial flight, the bats, still in a state of hibernation, were dropped from the ‘plane. Unfortunately, most of them didn’t wake up. They didn’t fly anywhere, they just made small, but deep, bat-shaped craters over a wide part of the USA. Not surprisingly, just like the bats, the project was dropped.

From monkeys, to rats, throughout history setting creatures alight seems to have been a favorite wartime subterfuge.

Nearer to the present day, the Soviet Union trained explosive-clad ‘suicide bomber’ dolphins to approach enemy ships and/or frogmen where they would be ‘detonated’ by remote control. Today’s US forces use bottlenose dolphins and California sealions in harbour protection and mine detection duties while Gambian pouched rats are used to sniff and locate land mines.

In 2003, Morocco offered US forces in Iraq thousands of Atlas Mountain monkeys trained in land mine detection. The ‘training’ it seems, involved the monkey’s ability to tread on a landmine and make it go bang!

The record of animals utilised by man in warfare is as fascinating, and surprising, as it obscene!

What would Britain look like if powered motor vehicles were to suddenly disappear? It would seem unimaginable to us today. The streets would be more or less empty, less smelly and very quiet. It would have been equally difficult for the folk of Great Britain, in the summer of 1914, to imagine the streets suddenly being emptied of horses. Without horses, ponies, mules and donkeys, the streets would have been more or less empty, less smelly and very quiet. Then, on June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Ferdinand and, as they say, ‘It all kicked off’.

The unimaginable became a reality.

In 1914 the British Army had around 20,000-25,000 horses, but the government demanded the requisition of half-a-million more. Everything from great shire and draft horses, to sturdy little ponies were rounded 
up. Farms were depleted 
of not just their horses, 
but in a lot of cases, especially in that of the 
large draft horses, lovingly cared-for, working ’pets’.

The Great War – “It’ll all be over by Christmas,” cried the recruiting sergeants! But it wasn’t! The ‘powers that be’ had imagined victorious, sweeping cavalry charges, made by the only professional Army in Europe, the British.

In 1885, the similar clever men of British High Command had turned down Sir Hiram Maxim’s novel little invention, the ‘machine gun’. Some thought it of little use, while others deemed it distinctly, ‘ungentlemanly’. The Germans did not see it that way and began mass production of ‘the Devil’s Paint Brush’, the ‘Maschinengewehr 08’ at the Spandau Arsenal in Berlin. Subsequent cavalry charges by the gallant British and their commonwealth Allies were met by hailstorms of lead, spewed from 12,000 machine guns firing on average 300-500 rounds a minute! Within months of the war starting, the Germans had nearly 100.000 such weapons, compared to the British, who could muster only a few hundred.

The impact of these industrial killing machines was instantly felt by cavalry units. Thousands of men and horses were torn to shreds as they charged uselessly against the Hun front lines. Front lines that were now decorated with the simple, but killingly effective invention of another American, Lucien B Smith.

In 1867, Mr Smith of Illinois had invented ‘barbed wire’, and its use in the trench warfare of 1914-18 was soon to become infamous.

The appalling slaughter 
of men and horses caused 
the British and French to rapidly abandon cavalry tactics and to resort to the stalemate of trench warfare.

The Germans had the high ground in trench warfare... literally! The Germans, who had got to France before the British, built their trench defensive systems on high ground and ridges. This allowed them to dig deeper and to keep dry. French and British trenches were mostly at sea level, which is why their trench systems turned into muddy, disease-ridden, excrement-filled, flooded sewers.

Disease was the greatest killer in wartime. A smorgasbord of ghastly illnesses killed more men than enemy fire during the first world war. Similarly, it was disease and starvation that were the major causes of death among the horses, mules, donkeys and ponies of ALL the combatants.

As in most of the great pestilences the world has known, the humble rat, with its flea passengers, was a major contributor. Trench warfare provided rats with shelter and especially food. Food in abundance, most of it lying around, some human, but all dead!

Yorkshire terriers and their relatives were especially gifted ratters and warmly welcomed by the inhabitants of the trenches. Dogs of most breeds were used by all sides. They ran messages and detected the wounded. They were used as guard and attack dogs, they pulled stretcher and machine-gun carriages. Many were given awards for their ‘heroism’, but none more than a stray mutt that was to achieve stardom – Sergeant Stubby!

To be continued...

n Aldwick Royal British Legion presents It’ll All Be Over by Christmas, a commemoration through celebration for all the family at Avisford Park, Aldwick, Bognor Regis, from 11am to 4pm on Sunday, August 3.