Friday, November 10, 2017

Fun Friday Facts #120: Service Animals of World War I

Longtime readers will remember when I blogged about Sergeant Stubby, Hero Dog of World War I.

Well, Sergeant Stubby wasn’t the only animal to answer the call to arms. Since tomorrow is Armistice Day, I thought today’s Fun Friday Facts would be a good opportunity to honor the 16 million animals who served in World War 1, including horses, donkeys, mules, camels, elephants, dogs, pigeons, and glow worms. Nine million service animals were killed in the war.

Two German soldiers pose with a horse that, you will notice, they have equipped with a machine gun. Why not.

Horses were especially vulnerable in combat conditions that straddled the line between modern and ancient military technology. In just one day during the Battle of Verdun in 1916, 7,000 horses were killed, including almost 100 who died from a single blast of French naval gun. Horses served on both sides of the war as beasts of burden, hauling artillery and supplies, but also transporting soliders; they were viewed as vital to saving the lives of soldiers on the front. Throughout the course of World War I, the Royal Army Veterinary Corps treated more than 2.5 million horses, returning 75% of their patients to the service. American Red Star Animal Relief distributed over 80,000 pamphlets on equine first aid to soldiers, as well as supplying veterinary ambulances and medical supplies to the war effort.

Homing pigeons were vital to the war effort. 100,000 homing pigeons carried messages on the front lines from 1914 to 1918. They were so successful that the Germans brought hawks to the trenches intercept enemy communications. Homing pigeons nevertheless prevailed, with a success rate of 95%. One brave bird, Cher Ami, was struck by artillery fire, but pressed on through the pain to deliver her message anyway. Blinded in one eye, with one of her legs dangling by a tendon, and suffering a large chest wound, Cher Ami flew 25 miles to deliver her message to Allied forces. The message read: "WE ARE ALONG THE ROAD PARALELL [sic] 276.4. OUR ARTILLERY IS DROPPING A BARRAGE DIRECTLY ON US. FOR HEAVENS SAKE STOP IT." Thanks to Cher Ami's heroism, the U.S. Army was able to redirect its fire and rescue 194 soldiers who were stranded behind enemy lines. Though he died of his wounds, Cher Ami was awarded the French Croix de Guerre as well as the ultimate honor for service animals, being stuffed and displayed in a museum.

Cher Ami

The use of mustard gas made the trench warfare of World War I particularly brutal. Dr. Paul Bartsch of the U.S. National Museum (now the National Museum of History) made the vital discovery that slugs could detect mustard gas before it rose to levels lethal to humans. The slugs reacted to the gas by shrinking up to close their breathing pores. “Slug brigades” saved countless lives by giving soldiers the advanced warning they needed to don their gas masks in time.

In the dark of the trenches, men enlisted the help of the European glowworm, which emits bioluminescence. A mere 10 glowworms can emit as much light as a streetlamp. Soldiers collected thousands of these insects into jars, where, grouped together, they emitted the light men used to read and write letters from home, inspect maps, and pore over intelligence reports.

Many regiments adopted animal mascots of all species, including lions, dogs, monkeys, alligators, raccoons, bears, goats, and foxes. Many of these animals, like Sergeant Stubby, a terrier named Rags, and an English bulldog named John Bull, played a crucial role in their regiments, running messages, carrying cargo, and warning the soldiers of incoming artillery fire. While many of these animals fell in battle, some of the lucky ones, like Rags and Sergeant Stubby, survived the war, went on to live long lives with loving families, and are considered heroes to this day.

They had no choice.