History going to the dogs.

If you visit the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester before 8 Jan next year, you’ll see a temporary exhibition (previously on at their London site) dedicated to animals that have been involved in human conflict throughout history. It’s an interesting and unusual subject, covering various angles. The most obvious is the practical employment of animals, the use of horses as cavalry (a key type of unit for centuries) being one example. This is “balanced” (arguably propagandised) by a floor-to-ceiling sized quote from a chairperson of PETA;

‘They are in perpetual involuntary servitude to all humankind,
And although they pose no threat
And own no weapons, human beings
Always win in the undeclared war against them.
For animals there is no Geneva Convention and no peace treaty, just our mercy.’

The other aspect is more ephemeral; the stories of individual “heroism” in war by what amount to military pets. From my own visit to the exhibition, the emphasis upon the animals themselves in the latter cases, is missing the point. These stories, anecdotal, unverifiable, and in many cases just plain unlikely, tell us far more about ourselves than they do about the thoughts, feelings and actions of animals. I would argue that the same is true of the PETA quote above. The idea of the loyal regimental mascot actively taking part in battle or rescuing their masters from peril needed a more critical approach.

Soldiers are people too. They enjoy the company, love and entertainment offered by a pet just as much as us civvies. As such officers (having rather more personal freedom than those in the ranks) would often keep a pet. Field Marshal Montgomery even had two puppies called Hitler and Rommel! There was also an official ceremonial role for animals, as regimental mascots; a long-standing tradition in the British Army and those of other countries. They are intended as a living badge of identity, and may have been chosen to represent some perceived quality of the unit (though this makes more sense with say, a boar, than it does a goat!). In many cases the line between the two roles was blurred, as the animal effectively became (or even started out as) a pet for the whole regiment. Attributes such as fighting spirit, nobility, and courage as well hopes and fears were all projected onto (or through) these creatures, in a culture where talking about such things was largely taboo. Men would anthropomorphise the animals, creating their own folklore about the battles and other exploits that might have been directly influenced by the presence of their beloved mascot. Despite raising many an eyebrow for outsiders, as far as regimental histories are concerned, these stories are unassailable fact. When the animal in question died, they would be canonised in regimental histories, maybe even stuffed and kept for future recruits to see. Bob the Scots Guards dog is a great example of this type of mascot:

bob the dog

Bob’s story at its most sensational (as written by a Victorian women’s magazine author), can be read here. How are we to interpret such stories as Bob chasing cannonballs at the Battle of Inkerman? The basic facts, though anecdotal, are quite plausible. In this example, it’s well known that dogs will chase moving (but inanimate) objects. As for any noble intent, dogs are loyal and faithful animals, but not too hot with abstract concepts such as “enemy” and “lethal cannon shot”. The significance therefore has to be read into the behaviour by the observer, and I would suggest that this might account for many of the more outlandish stories of animal intelligence. At the far end of the scale, the same applies with claims of “psychic” pets.

Scepticism is one thing, but sometimes evidence comes to light to remind us that some animal stories are purely apocryphal. Shortly after the IWM Animals War exhibition opened including a display featuring Rob the SAS parachutist dog, a former officer and memoir author assumed responsibility for what was apparently a straightforward hoax contrived to allow the unit to retain their beloved but non-regulation pet. Rob had indeed received the PDSA award, but had not actually taken part in training or operations.

Another example comes from a short-lived spin-off of the popular “Brainiac” UK TV programme. Called “Brainiac: History Abuse“, this attempted to give a young, fun spin to history, including a geeky and apparently knowledgeable persona of “Ernest Clough, History Buff”, played by actor Stephen Wisdom. Among the dubious “unbelievable, but true!” stories told in this short segment was an account supposedly of the Battle of Fontenoy in the 18th Century. Nearly over-run by the French (who would go on to win the battle), an artillery position is saved by the actions of a gunner’s pet dog, who somehow fires a cannon and stops the enemy charge in its tracks. Intrigued by this tall tale, I spent a good deal of time with both the literature and search engines, and the only reference I could find was this, at Michigan State University. I’ll reproduce a panel here:


Now, this is from an issue of “True Comics” published during the Second World War primarily as a piece of propaganda to help with the war effort. I suppose the idea here is to show that even a simple animal is on the right side and making an effort. I can’t be certain, but it seems likely to me that this is the origin of the story featured (albeit briefly) on Brainiac. Whatever the case, intellectual honesty has already been shown to be not the highest priority of the show, entertaining though it can be.

Stories like this do reflect the great fondness human beings can have for their fellow animals. But they should be taken with a large pinch of salt. They can be viewed in the same way as the “traditional histories” of societies like the Freemasons and Kinghts Templar; propaganda meant to help define and bind together a group of people. Whether you see these “shaggy dog stories” as harmless folklore or a cheapening of history (and the sacrifice made by human beings in war) probably depends upon how you view things like urban myths. Whatever the rights or wrongs, I find this sort of thing fascinating.


3 thoughts on “History going to the dogs.

  1. I had a dog which loved to play with an old bowling ball. A Chesapeake Bay Retriever, about whose dental health i had some concerns. He couldn’t “retrieve” ball, but would chase, chew, and defend it like a bone. A cannon ball would be smaller, but just as much fun to him.

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