Matthew Dennison looks at the roles of at least 20,000 dogs who were involved in the First World War.

In March 1917, The Literary Digest published an extraordinary photograph. It showed a seated dog, its face and muzzle completely obscured by a clumsy-looking canine gas mask. The dog
in question was in the service of the Red Cross. Recent research estimates that, during the First World War, British and allied forces on the Western Front used up to 20,000 dogs.

Their roles, and the conditions in which they worked, were frequently highly dangerous. Dogs carried messages and a range of supplies, chiefly medical, they undertook guard duty and even reconnaissance missions. Many were killed in action.

In Britain, a number of these dogs came from Battersea Dogs Home, animal pounds and police stations across the country; as many as 7,000 were family pets, donated by patriotic owners. Of one such, a small girl wrote: ‘We have let Daddy go to fight the Kaiser, and now we are sending Jack to do his bit.’ The same was true of Britain’s allies. The French war department published a letter from
a father who had three sons and a son-in-law in the trenches. ‘Now I give up my dog and Vive la France!’ he wrote.

It was the Germans who first trained dogs to seek out the wounded and comfort the dying: German dogs were fitted with saddlebags of medical supplies. That idea was taken up enthusiastically by the British, French, Italians and, in time, the Americans. The Belgian army used dogs in place of horses for moving machine guns under fire and Russian officers trained dogs to carry extra ammunition. Terriers were used for ratting in the trenches; other small dogs carried cartons of cigarettes.

Yet it was the humane aspect of these dogs’ work that caught the imagination of British readers. ‘Dogs are never trained to scent out the dead,’ one journalist wrote. ‘Their business is to assist the wounded. Each one carries a first-aid package strapped about its back or neck and knows that when a wounded man is found he may take the package.’

In other instances, dogs were trained to remove an item of clothing, typically a cap, from a wounded man so that he could be identified and, conditions permitting, aid sent to him. Often, a red cross marked the dogs’ saddlebags. Some dogs were trained to distinguish between ally and enemy uniforms.

It was exacting work. By the time the War Office established a War Dog School of Instruction at Shoeburyness in Essex, its commandant Lt Col Edwin Hautenville Richardson had formulated his ideal Red Cross dog, as the newspapers reported: ‘The best physical type seems to be of medium size, strong, grey or black, kind and of good eyesight. A cross between bulldog and mastiff is said to be desirable; as are sheep dogs, retrievers, pointers, large Airedales and many “out and out curs”.’

Photographs show the range of breeds employed, from Irish and Welsh terriers to large pastoral dogs; in Britain, the Red Cross particularly favoured blood-hounds and Lt Col Richardson praised deerhounds, lurchers and collies.

Steadfastness and an ability to resist barking were key. As a report published in the Dundee Evening Telegraph in 1916 stated: ‘A watchdog never barks; at the most he will use a low growl to indicate the presence or approach of a hostile force. More often than not the mere pricking of the ears or the attitude of expectancy is sufficient to put his master on his guard.’

British newspapers published photographs of dogs at the front. At moments of faltering morale, tales of canine heroism bolstered public confidence. In April 1915, five French dogs played a key role in a counter-attack launched by the 90th Brigade (45th Algerian Division) at Boesinghe, near Ypres in Belgium. Bac, Ruff, Pell, Podge and North successfully returned from a reconnaissance mission to Boesinghe Woods, carrying items of German headgear. The variety of helmets and caps the dogs found enabled their handlers to identify the German troops positioned nearby and to estimate something of their strength.

A less happy but no less inspiring story concerned Marquis the dispatch dog, who was killed trying to deliver a message under heavy gunfire. Despite what proved to be a fatal bullet wound, Marquis returned to his handler with the undelivered missive. He dropped it, blood-stained, at his handler’s feet before shortly dying.

In 1918, an Airedale named Jack, attached to men of the Sherwood Foresters, allegedly carried a request for urgent reinforcements for more than half a mile under heavy gunfire. By the time he reached battalion headquarters, his jaw had been broken and one leg shattered by gunshot. He died almost instantly, but the request was received in time and reinforcements were able to save many of their colleagues from almost certain death.

Not all such stories ended unhappily. A British army dog handler called Keeper Swankie had in his charge a dog called Ginger. Ginger suffered from shell shock, but recovered sufficiently to continue his wartime service, distinguished by his ability to cover a distance of a mile in only 3½ minutes.
Next week, Country Life marks the centenary of the First World War with a selection of previously unpublished war letters sent in by readers.

* This article was first published in Country Life magazine on July 23 2014