Training war dogs: The British experience during the First World War

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Sniffing the Past is delighted to feature a guest blog from Emma White:

It is only since the Second World War that working dogs have made a prolonged appearance in the British Army. However, during the First World War the army decided to try to use dogs to aid communications with the front lines. The idea of military working dogs was not a new one for continental European armies on the Continent. German, French and Russian armies, amongst others, had been training dogs for various military purposes for a number of years. There was, however, some British involvement in the form of Edwin Hautonville Richardson, a former British Army officer and one of the world’s foremost dog trainer, having supplied them all over the world. In July 1914, just weeks before the outbreak of the war, Richardson was a judge at the Russian Army dog trials (the other two judges were both Germans).[1] But despite the endeavours of Richardson, the British army did not see the value in using dogs.

 

Cigarette card of Richardson and a dog in training. Credit: Author’s personal collection

Cigarette card of Richardson and a dog in training. Credit: Author’s personal collection

 

When war broke out, Richardson offered his entire kennel of trained dogs to the British army.[2] His offer was refused and so he extended his offer to the British Red Cross, which gratefully accepted his trained first aid dogs for searching out the wounded on the battlefield. These dogs, however, very quickly became redundant with the onset of trench warfare and the demise of large open battlefields.

 

French First aid dog. Credit: Author's personal collection

French First aid dog. Credit: Author’s personal collection

 

Although rejected by the army, Richardson still received many requests from individual officers who knew of his reputation for providing excellent dogs. One request finally convinced the army. An officer in the Royal Artillery had appealed to Richardson for dogs to run messages between his outpost and the gun battery as existing communications were continually being disrupted by enemy artillery.[3] Richardson duly trained two Airedales called Wolf and Prince and sent them out to France on 31 December 1916. These dogs performed well and Colonel Winter of the Royal Artillery reported on their excellent work in tough conditions. One report stated that ‘on the attack on Vimy Ridge the dogs were employed with an artillery post. All the telephone wires were broken and visual signalling was impossible. These dogs were the first to bring through the news.’[4] It was these reports that persuaded the War Office to accept the use of dogs as messengers to aid communications. Official sanction was given for a War Dog Training School at the ‘New Ranges’ at Shoeburyness Artillery School in Essex in summer 1917 with Richardson at its head. Surprisingly, it was not until January 1918 that the Messenger Dog Service was formally established by the Army Council, even though messenger dogs had been working on the Western Front since the school opened.

 

There are many reasons why dogs were well suited to this type of role. They were quick (much faster than a human runner over shell-pocked terrain), could find their way easily during day and night, and would work in smoky or foggy conditions in which pigeons and visual signals were not viable.

 

At first the dogs were secured from the Home for Lost Dogs at Battersea and dogs’ homes in many other cities eventually sent suitable dogs. In 1918 a public appeal was placed in newspapers around the country for dogs to be sent to the army. Some of the letters which Richardson received show the desire of many dog-owning Britons to support the war effort. A veteran of Mons wrote that ‘I have been through Mons, and have lost a leg and nearly lost my life, and I have not much I can give my country, but I gladly give my dog to help’. A little girl also wrote saying, ‘We have let Daddy go to fight the Kaiser, and now we are sending Jack to do his bit.’[5]

 

The Shoeburyness dogs were trained to return from an unknown position back to their kennels and taken further away from home each time. They were also taken to the gun batteries daily in order to become accustomed to the sound of gun fire. The dogs were trained to relate the firing of guns and noise with food, so that the association would propel the dog to complete a message run as fast as possible to receive their rations when they had finished.

 

It was not only the dogs which had to be trained, however, but also the handlers who would accompany them to the Western Front. At first they were recruited from the units whose commanding officers showed an interest in the work at the school. The army stipulated that the would-be-handlers should have had previous experience of working with dogs. However, many of soldiers who attended the school had no such training and therefore required just as much training as the dogs!

 

In the early months of the school, the organisation of the dogs and handlers after they returned to their units was very haphazard. Without proper guidelines in place, the dogs were often poorly deployed or set impossible tasks. Major Alec Waley of the Royal Engineers was charged with improving the situation. He established a Central Kennels at the Étaples training camp in France and organised their employment in the field.

 

Once dogs were ready to leave the Central Kennel, they were deployed at a Section Kennel and then allocated to specific units on the front lines. Reports on the employment of these dogs vary from unit to unit. Some make no mention whatsoever of their use, some make only brief mention, while others cover in great detail the dogs and handlers who worked with them. The 5th Australian Signals even drew small dogs on their signals maps to show where they were being used.[6]

 

The Central Kennel. Credit: Imperial War Museum Q29558

The Central Kennel. Credit: Imperial War Museum Q29558

 

The use of messenger dogs for communications, although a late arrival in the communications arsenal, had by the end of the war been well tested and had become an important weapon. In November 1918, B.E.F. training pamphlet S.S. 135 ‘The Division in the Attack’ instructed that a group of messenger dogs should be assigned to each battalion as their employment could save the use of runners.

 

By the end of the war, the War Dog Training School had outgrown its home at Shoeburyness and moved to the New Forest. The army also extended training to form guard and sentry dogs in an attempt to ease manpower shortages in 1917 and 1918 by replacing men guarding depots with dogs. The army, however, abolished the Messenger Dog Service after the First World War, only to re-establish it during the Second World War. Its legacy, in the form of the 1st Military Working Dog Regiment, lives on today.

 

About the blogger: Emma White has a BA(Hons) in History from Queen Mary College, University of London. She has worked previously in two Greater London Borough Archives and has recently graduated with an MA in British First World War Studies at the University of Birmingham. Emma is currently the Heritage Project Manager for West Sussex County Council Library Service, managing the West Sussex & the Great War project. She is also studying for a PhD in the use of dogs in the First World War at the University of Chichester.

 [1] E. H. Richardson, British War Dogs: Their Training and Psychology (London: Skeffington and Son Ltd, 1920), 52.

[2] Ibid. 54.

[3] Ibid. 55-56.

[4] E. H. Richardson, Forty Years with Dogs (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1929), 228.

[5] Richardson, British War Dogs, 60.

[6] National Archives, London [??]WO95/3596, 5th Australian division Appendix 1a 4th July 1918

 

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