Military Menageries- they had no choice.

May 1, 2015 — 1 Comment

When we think about animal casualties in war, we think about Homo sapiens. Human animals are remembered for their contribution and sacrifice in the wars of today, yesterday and long ago. When we consider human participation in war, and the limitations to the degree of consent, this certainly also applies to Animal Conscription to the war efforts. Animals of the land, sea and sky have been used as ‘Military Animals’ for thousands of years- the intricacies and contributions of their roles overshadowed by those of humans- many of whom had animals by their sides, in what I call a Military Menagerie.

Land Animals


Wartime campaigns relied particularly on the Equine family: horses, donkeys, mules, and other domesticated animals.Of all the animals in war, horses are the best documented.The first Warhorse entered the battlefield 4000 years ago, considered indispensable in the war effort due to its size and strength, and I will add ‘stoicism’, for the sake of alliteration. It is estimated that in the Great War alone, 8 million horses died. Diseased. Wounded. Exhausted. Proportionately, a horse was more likely to die than its rider. 10 million men died in WWI. War Horses were trained to charge at live cannons and to haul loads of artillery through difficult terrain. Simon Butler accounts for the lives of these animals in his book , ‘The War Horses’. The following images are taken from this work.

War Horse 1 A horse stands, unable to release itself from the grip of the dead rider, on its reigns. War Horse 4 Experimental head-wear to protect horses from toxic gas. War Horse 3 Yes, that is a machine gun strapped to the body of a horse.

“Nearly a century after the ‘war to end all wars’ , it seems that we are finally giving due recognition to a group of comrades who never gave up and who never complained, for the simple reason that they could not.” Robert Hardman, 2011 (writer for Daily Mail).

Eventually with the advancement of technology, horses no longer played a direct role in the field. One  of the most pervasive equine war stories, is that of ‘Simpson and his donkey’. In 1915, as part of the ANZAC (Australian New Zealand Army Corps) efforts in the Great War, one man, John ‘Simpson’ Kirkpatrick and his donkey, Duffy, walked back and forth a treacherous path from battlefield to beach, carrying wounded soldiers for evacuation to medical treatment. Three weeks in and Simpson was fatally wounded by Turkish machine gun fire. Simpson’s donkey, so used to their well-trodden path, continued along to the beach with the soldier on his back. A statue of the pair, now stands outside the War Memorial in Canberra, Australia. Canberra Source: Human Enough (2008).


Elephants have played a role in wars dating back centuries to Ancient Rome and Greece. They were trained to charge at the enemy , scattering their ranks in mass confusion. Their size in the end proved to be more of a hindrance, to humans and to the elephants themselves. Elephants spooked easily particularly when confronted with weapon wielding humans and flying pig fire-balls. Yes, flying pig fire-balls. When it became apparent that elephants were skittish and prone to trampling the humans on their own side, opposing infantry took to upping the ante by setting pigs alight and pelting them at the elephants- who when terrified would indiscriminately crush the men on their own side. This became such a regular occurrence that elephant riders were equipped with a hammer and spike which they would fatally administer should their elephant turn to charge towards their own infantry line. With the introduction of gunpowder in the 1400s, elephants were no longer used in direct military efforts and similar to the Equine family, they were relegated to hauling artillery, as recently as WWII when elephants were able to traverse terrain too rugged for military vehicles. 1024px-Schlacht_bei_Zama_Gemälde_H_P_Motte Carthaginian war elephants engage Roman infantry at the Battle of Zama (202 BC). Henri-Paul Motte – Das Wissen des 20.Jahrhunderts, Bildungslexikon, Rheda 1931

Beasts of Burden: Camels and Oxen

Terrain often dictated which animals would be recruited to war campaigns. In the Middle-East Camels and Oxen, ‘Beasts of Burden’, were utilised to carry heavy loads through difficult terrain. Camels were considered a more sustainable resource as they required far less water than oxen or horses. During the 1800s in their war against the Native Americans, North America launched the Camel Corp in which 60 camels carried supplies throughout the South-West region. As it turned out, the Camel Corp suffered the same fate as the Elephantry and was disbanded due to their skittishness, stubbornness and general irritability which spooked the horses and the mules- their participation compromising the efforts of the Civil War (1861-1865). This war is said to have claimed up to 700,000 human lives, and even more in animal casualties. US_Camel_Corp_1 Camel at Drum Barracks, San Pedro, California Rudolph D’Heureuse, who published a series of forty-one photos in 1863 [1] – Dead-Horse Source:


The virtues of Man’s Best Friend has meant that dogs have been by the sides of soldiers through many wars. Most notably, 4000 dogs were deployed by America, as war dogs in Vietnam between the years 1964-1973. The dogs hampered the efforts of the Viet Cong to such an extent that a price tag was placed on their heads. 762px-ArmyDogVietnam2_Source US Army Source: US Army

During World War I, dogs were used as secret messengers, locating live mines and laying communication wires. And often, dogs were best friends to the men and women in war. In WWI, 50000 dogs were deployed, but very few returned. Dog2_ Frances Whiting Halsey Source: Frances Whiting Halsey.

By World War II the role of the dog had morphed into that of Kamikaze Canines. These anti-tank war dogs, intensively trained by the Soviets, carried explosives on their backs, the bombs then detonating upon their impact with German tanks. How do you get a dog to run underneath a tank and detonate a live bomb strapped to their bodies? Keep them hungry and hide food treats beneath enemy tanks. The training routine simulated war conditions, using real tanks with running engines. This made for a seamless transition during real-life battles. The training regimes though had disastrous results, killing many dogs and Soviet soldiers. During the simulated wars, dogs would get spooked by the tanks and run back to their human soldier companion, inadvertently detonating the bomb and killing both themselves and their master. To counter this, any dogs who were seen to be running back towards their human, to their perceived safety, were shot dead. Heart breaking. This Anti-tank dog regime continued until as recently as 1996. article-2517413-19CE2A3600000578-968_634x385 Source: Daily Mail

Exploding dogs is a military tactic that has been used, although unsuccessfully, as recently as during the Iraq War, by Iraqi insurgents. In 2005, explosives strapped to the backs of dogs were detonated remotely,to blast passing convoys. Eventually, donkeys were used by the Iraqis, as it was normal for donkeys to be seen walking in civilian areas wearing large packs, only these packs carried explosives. Since then, in Iraq and Afghanistan, dogs are recruited to sniff out explosive devices, dead bodies and to clear out zones considered too dangerous for humans. dog7.Australian Department of defense Source: Australian Defence Force

The fate of war dogs, up until this century, was euthanasia.Imagine that, surviving the hell of a war zone, only to be killed anyway. In 2006, the US Military initiated a re-homing program for dogs returning from the war in Iraq. German Shephards, Labradors and Retrievers are the most common breeds sent to war, due to their intelligence and loyalty. A loyal dog will run under a tank, or into a barrage of gun-fire, for their master. Then of course there are the street dogs in these developing , war-plagued nations- it has been said:

“ the street dogs howling in terror were the most accurate indicator of an impending air raid on Baghdad”- source unknown.

Domestic Animals

Just days into the outbreak of the 2nd World War, in 1939, the first casualties were the domestic animals, killed by their owners. This largely came about after the National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee (NARPAC) widely distributed a pamphlet which advised owners that this course of action was the most patriotic and most humane thing to do. The pamphlet said: “If at all possible, send or take your household animals into the country in advance of an emergency.” It concluded: “If you cannot place them in the care of neighbours, it really is kindest to have them destroyed.” One quarter of a million animals were euthanised in the first week.

Air Raid Cull Thousands of animals were pre-emptively destroyed by their masters who feared for the fates of their companions in the event of toxic gas attacks, and then there was the very real risk that humans would not be able to sustain the cost of feeding and providing for the animals in times of war rations. The largest number of pet casualties was in London where family pets were dropped off to animal welfare agencies to be euthanised. Sources document the number of animals euthanised to fall anywhere between 200,000- 400,000 (RSPCA). See Bonzo’s War: Animals Under Fire 1939 -1945 written by Clare Campbell with Christy Campbell. _70430165_vet-getty This image shows a vet treating an injured animal during war-time (Getty Images)

Livestock and Landmines

Millions more animals die in wars than humans. A large percentage of war deaths are those not often considered, that of livestock. During the Gulf War of the 1990s, up to 800,000 farm animals were left to die after farmers and families fled the war. These animals were left either to fend for themselves in war-torn streets, or suffered the fate of starvation, locked in their pens without access to food or water. Although ‘smart bombs’ were programmed to avoid hospitals, schools and other civilian targets, animal civilians were not considered, and were sitting targets. The misery is immeasurable. It is estimated that up to 50% of Afghanistan’s livestock perished during this war.

Sea Animals

Mammals that have evolved to navigate the high-seas have been used in war for decades. Covert military operations, such as the United States Marine Mammal Program, uncovered as recently as 1990, exploited the sonar capabilities of bottlenose dolphins, and the superior under-water eyesight of California sea lions, to infiltrate enemy advances. The dolphins were trained to detect and recover underwater mines, while sea-lions played marine sentry, spotting and alerting the US Navy to enemies in the water. Marine Mammals were deployed in combat during the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Dolphins are trained in San Diego bay, and sent to work in war- detecting enemy mines and activating a buoy to alert US Navy vessels to avoid the area. These mine clearance dolphins were deployed during the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars in 2003.

Even more remarkably, perhaps for the divers who are intercepted by the obedient mammals, dolphins and sea lions have been trained to track enemy divers, approaching them and attaching a device to the air tank, which then activates a buoy, visible to the US Navy. Sea lions are even more invasive in their approach, and have been trained to cuff the limbs of the enemy swimmers, again activating a buoy.

NMMP_Sea_Lion_Recovering_Test_Object “NMMP Sea Lion Recovering Test Object”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – 640px-NMMP_dolphin_with_locator This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID 030318-N-5319A-002

Animals at sea are dying by the millions, even beyond the borders of military action. Spanish scientists in the Canaries are reporting hundreds of deaths to sea mammals caused by ‘decompression’, or ‘the bends’. Dead whales have washed up on beaches just hours after naval warships have carried out sonar operations in the immediate area. It is likely dolphins and whales become disoriented and rise to the surface far too quickly than their bodies can sustain. These casualty rates don’t even account for those individuals that are struck by massive military vessels- hit and runs.

Air – The Birds and the Bees

Pigeons and parakeets, with their sensitive respiratory systems, were deployed during the World Wars, to detect chemical warfare. Birds dropping from the sky signaled to humans that a chemical attack was underway-gas masks ahoy. It really was bad luck to be a pigeon during war-times. With communication lines often cut by enemies, up to 200,000 pigeons, with their homing abilities, served during both World Wars, as messengers carrying top secret communication to and from battlefields, and were responsible for saving hundreds of human lives, often at the expense of their own. Cher Ami, a WWII Black Check Cock carrier pigeon, arrived exhausted, shot at and dishevelled (almost sans one leg), delivering the message from Major Whittlesey’s “Lost Battalion” of the 77th Infantry Division:

“ We are along the road 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake. Please stop it!”

During his lifetime, he delivered 12 important messages within the American sector at Verdun, France. During this, his last mission, Cher Ami was shot through the breast by enemy fire, the above message released from a capsule found dangling from the tendon of one of his legs that had been all but destroyed in the line of fire. On this day, Cher Ami saved the lives of 194 men. After being nursed back to his (not so) former glory, Cher Ami was lovingly fitted with a specially carved wooden leg.”Cher Ami” is on display at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History, Behring Center, in the exhibition The Price of Freedom: Americans At War.

cher ami WW1 pigeon Cher Ami- Smithsonian Institute

In WWII birds were trained to turn on each other. The Germans trained Peregrine Falcons to patrol the skies and attack and kill any carrier pigeons they encountered. WWII also saw the invention of the Bat Bomb, under President Roosevelt in 1943. Due to their tendency to take flight under the cover of darkness, and their preference to roost in or near houses, combined with their ability to carry more than their own body weight, Mexican free-tailed bats were strapped with explosives, parachuted into Japan’s Osaka Bay, and remotely detonated. The explosions caused carnage to Japanese homes, which were largely built from flammable materials such as bamboo and wood. 15 million dollars was invested into bat bombs, and prior to the development of the atomic bomb, bats were considered a most successful and cost-effective weapon. batshitcrazybomb Source: Unknown

A lesser remembered casualty of the sky wars was the bee. Known as Entomological Warfare, a kind of biological warfare that uses insects as weaponry, bees were deployed during WWI and WWII. Bee hives were catapulted into enemy lines, or triggered to fall on enemy heads, by activated trip wires. Lest we forget the humble bee. Other insects that have served in wars, either in direct attack or as vectors, include fleas, beetles and mosquitoes.

Warfare Research

The nameless victims of wars to come, are those animals held captive in warfare research institutions. In the UK, at least 9,000 animals are killed annually at the Porton Down research facility. By the end of 2012, 28000 animals, including goats, sheep, mice, rats, cats and monkeys- had lost their lives under a barrage of blast attacks or small arms fire. In the US, the Pentagon reports a need for the continuation of the ‘Live Animal Model’, used in combat casualty training, which tests several different aspects of bioterrorism on animals- all part of a global 300 billion dollar weaponry market.

warfare_450x0 Source:

All creatures great and small

Let us remember the smaller animals who lost their lives in war. The common slugs that combusted under contact with mustard gas, signalling to humans that they should reach for their gas masks; the glow worms kept in the confines of glass jars- their last light of their lives used by human soldiers to read maps in deep trenches. For these creatures, it would be as though they were never there.

This post was informed by:

Animals in War Legal conventions

British WWII

Air Raid Cull:



Animal casualties American civil war



Animal research Exhibitions


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  1. How War Effects Animals – Rantings From a Virtual Soapbox - June 11, 2017

    […] Military Menageries- they had no choice. […]

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