Dogs also serveArmistice Sunday 2018 marked the end of the 4 year commemoration of the hundred years since the Great War. There have been many events and thought-provoking activities, but none that we have found focused on the roles dogs played. Yet it is estimated that over a million dogs were killed during that conflict.

When we see the archive footage, it is easy to see the use of horses to pull guns, supplies and as cavalry. Warhorse, the book and the play, allowed us to understand better the role of horses while Blue Cross posted an excellent blog on their own development and how they supported horses . Yet look carefully at the footage and dogs can often be seen.

Varied Roles of Dogs in the Great War

Dogs had multiple roles beyond some which are now imagined. In the early 1900’s dogs were often used to pull small milk carts on their daily deliveries. So it’s not surprising that they were used to help pull small supply carts to the front or by the machine gun corps as an easy way to move the heavy machine guns.

Dogs were also an alternative to pigeons as messengers. This required special training so that the dog would respond and run between two masters, one sending and the other receiving the message attached to its collar. At the front-line, terriers were sometimes trained to run through a pipe to connect the first trench to the reserve trench as an efficient way of getting messages through. The terriers often doubled up as rat catchers to fight those infestations.

Some dogs were trained as casualty dogs. They carried equipment to the wounded to help stem their injuries until rescue was possible. Or they were trained to stay and provide company to the dying. And we shouldn’t forget the morale-boost for troops of simply having a dog around to break up the boredom and stress.

More obvious roles were the use of medium-sized dogs as sentries, scouts and trackers.

Not just World War 1

Dogs continued to serve with the armed forces, but in much lower numbers. In May 1941, the UK government issued a request for dogs and received 7,000 offers. This was not as harsh as it might seem as lots of owners at this time were struggling to feed their dogs.

What was brutal was the use by the Soviet Union of dogs strapped with explosives as attack dogs between 1941 and 1945. But this use was seen to be ineffective as the dog often returned to its handler, rather than the intended target!

In the last 20 years cameras have been attached to dogs to scout out strongholds to provide intelligence before a planned attack. But as defenders became wise to German Shepherds wandering about and with the increased use of drones, this is less likely to happen.

So once again the role of dogs in the military is becoming that of mascot, companion and guard.