History books tell us about military conflicts, but they barely mention the participation of animals in wars. However, since ancient times, these discrete actors have played a significant role in different fields, ranging from transport to strategic communication. Their contribution, sometimes heroic, sometimes tragic, has often influenced the course of historical events.
Discover these animal soldiers, forgotten heroes of the battlefields, without whom wars would perhaps not have taken the turn we know today.
What animal species helped the army in war?
Since ancient times, horses, elephants, dogs and camels have been used in combat. Chosen on their qualities: strength, speed, power or flair, they assisted the soldiers with self-sacrifice. Some perished, others were decorated, still others were forgotten…
Capitol geese are emblematic of the role animals play in military defense. Let’s go back to ancient Rome. In 390 BC. BC, the city of Rome was besieged by the Gauls, led by Brennus. While the latter try to take the Capitol, the fortified and strategic area of the city, by surprise, Juno’s geese transform into incredible guardians. With their loud cackles, they wake up the Roman defenders. It is a mythical event, but this animal has since been considered sacred and celebrated on August 3 each year at the Circus Maximus in Rome. According to the historian Livy, it was these birds that saved the Capitol.
If there is one animal that was particularly exploited during numerous wars, it is the horse! Whether it is Bucephalus, the mount of Alexandre Legrand, king of Macedonia, who participated in most of his military conquests or Marengo, the light gray Arabian thoroughbred of Napoleon Bonaparte, they are no strangers to the victories and defeats of their rider. Thus, Marengo participated, for example, in the Russian campaign of 1812 and the Battle of Waterloo of 1815.
Did you know ? Written descriptions indicate that Bucephalus was black with a long white line on the muzzle (the area from the top of the head to the nose). However, pictorial representations sometimes paint it white, light gray or chestnut (red-brown).
The dog was also very often used in combat. Able to sneak into the trenches of the 1914-1918 war, it served both to restore morale to the troops and to provide them with information. Dogs were also used to detect explosives and mines. They have always been able to prevent many dangers, and still do so today. Stubby, an American dog who served in World War I, is one of the most famous.
Dolphins have been trained by the Russian and American armies to sneak through the water discreetly and blow up boats with weapons. They were also used to detect submarines. They were notably used in Iraq in 2003 and during the Vietnam War.
In 2016, Russia purchased 5 dolphins for military purposes. During the annexation of Crimea in 2014, it had already got its hands on a training center for these animals with the aim of carrying out war missions. These graceful mammals therefore continue today to serve the military interests of certain countries.
Among the animal soldiers we can count elephants, which were notably used by Hannibal in 218 BC. BC when he took them across the Alps to fight against the Roman army. They were then used as assault weapons. This maneuver went down in history because of its audacity and ingenuity.
Alexandre Legrand, for his part, brought back some between 356 and 323 BC. AD to integrate them into his army. After his death, his generals, called the Diadochi, used these animals in many battles to control Alexander’s empire, which popularized the use of elephants in Hellenistic armies.
The Romans, in turn, found occasional interest in exploiting the animal for their battles.
Pachyderms were also used in India and Iran. But their exploitation for military purposes really dates back to Antiquity, because there was quickly an interest in exploiting their size and strength. They were also capable of frightening the enemy. It was the evolution of warfare techniques and technologies that caused the role of elephants in armed conflicts to decline.
Carrier pigeons made their contribution, particularly during the First World War, to quickly inform the military. In the trenches, communication was difficult. These birds therefore became the only way to send messages. Cher Ami was one of those who saved the most soldiers.
Then, during the Second World War, the United Kingdom created the National Pigeon Service which used thousands of birds to cross the English Channel with a message. Gustav and Paddy are among the most famous.
These birds also served as spies. A camera was attached to their body using a harness, and it was triggered automatically every 10 seconds.
But their first use dates back to the Napoleonic Wars, between 1803 and 1815. Napoleon Bonaparte himself used birds to send rapid and secure messages between two commands.
A brown bear, named Woktek, was used by Polish soldiers during World War II. He became a corporal. First a mascot, he then transported ammunition. Today, a park in Krakow, Poland, has erected a statue in his honor, as has the city of Edinburgh, because he ended his life in a zoo in Scotland.
Camels, which have two humps, remember, were mainly used in wars affecting desert and arid areas. Extremely resistant to harsh conditions, they were capable of carrying heavy loads over long distances without eating or drinking for several days. In addition, they could move silently and transport cannons to places inaccessible to motorized vehicles.
In Antiquity and the Middle Ages, they were therefore used in the Middle East and North Africa. The Persian empires, like the Arab and Ottoman armies, used these animals for transport and logistics. There were also camel cavalries in regions where horses were less suitable.
During the First and Second World Wars, these animals were used in the campaigns of North Africa and the Middle East.
More surprisingly, in the United States, the United State Camel Corps was an experiment carried out by the American army in the 19th century. It consisted of using camels as beasts of burden. The US Army, however, refused to use them for military purposes. Ultimately, the civil war put an end to the experiment.
What impact have wars had on fighting animals?
If we look only at the First World War, there are 14 million animals used by the armies, 120,000 of which were subsequently decorated. According to Eric Baratay, historian and author of “Beasts of the Trenches – Forgotten Experiences”, published in 2017 by Biblis, we can count:
11 million horses 100,000 dogs 200,000 pigeons, many of whom died from gas and gunfire.
During the Second World War, 30 million of them were enlisted in our human conflicts, according to Martin Monestier, author of the book “Animal Soldiers” published by Editions du Cherche Midi.
We cannot count the total number of animals used in human feuds, but many have saved men, often at the risk of their own lives.
What other animals accompanied soldiers during wars?
Other animals, much less friendly, accompanied the soldiers. These are fleas, lice and rats. This is the reason why some Poilus, during the First World War, slept in cage beds so as not to be bitten.
They called the lice “totos” and lived in their company, which further added to the misery of the trenches. The precarious hygienic conditions and constant humidity favored the proliferation of these parasites, contributing to the physical and moral exhaustion of the soldiers.
Lice infestations were so widespread that they led to diseases like typhus. War in the trenches was not only a fight against the enemy, but also a daily battle against these undesirables.
In addition, biting flies (stomoxys calcitrans) or anthrax flies entered the trenches. They contributed to the contamination of food and water. As for rats, they were attracted to waste and dead people. Their hunting quickly became a major concern. All these pests increased the risk of infections and diseases.
Even today, according to the 30 million friends association, there are around 500 dogs in French dog units and 450 in the army.
To look at animal soldiers is to open your eyes to their courage, their self-sacrifice, their sacrifices and their qualities of adaptation, values that human beings are not the only ones to possess… when they possess them!