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The Oscar-nominated Stephen Spielberg film Warhorse has focussed media and public attention on the role of horses during the First World War. Belligerent nations mobilized thousands of horses, mules, and donkeys to fulfil essential roles between 1914 and 1918. One British commentator declared that ‘the motor-mad mechanic may think that his chance has come, but generals who have to lead an army over water-logged plains… will demand horses.’ Captain Sidney Galtrey similarly stressed the vital role played by horses, donkeys, and mules, arguing that the army would have been ‘immobile and impotent’ without them. As a member of the army’s remount service and a racing journalist, Galtrey was overly keen to emphasis their importance. But his claims were not without foundation. For despite developments in mechanized transport during the war (the French army boasted 90,000 motor vehicles by 1918), equids still pulled 80 per cent of artillery pieces in the French army at the time of the Armistice.

But what about the role of dogs in the trenches? Armies on both sides of the Western Front drafted in dogs to provide transportation on the battlefield, carry food and other supplies between trenches and, in the Belgian army, pull guns. Their physicality and trainability meant that dogs were perhaps the most versatile animal on the battlefield. They were mobilised as guard dogs, messenger dogs, laid telegraph wires, and located injured soldiers in no man’s land (a 1916 German publication estimated that 600 dogs had saved over 3,000 lives in this way). Dogs’ agility, size, and speed meant that they could carry messages across the militarized environment and reach stranded soldiers better than humans. And like human soldiers, they were subject to the dangers of the trenches, such as poisonous gas.

Belgian draught dogs

As with horses, and with Germany leading the way, armies increasingly institutionalised the use of dogs as the war continued. In 1916, the British War Office authorized Lieutenant Colonel Richardson to establish a military dog-training school at Shoeburyness, which was then transferred to Natley Ridge in the New Forest as the number of canine recruits increased. France followed suit in 1917, when Captain Malric took charge of the Military Canine Service based at Satory to train liaison, guard, and medical dogs. And once it entered the war, the United States army used bloodhounds to locate corpses and land mines. In all, armies mobilized tens of thousands of dogs. In 1917 and 1918 France alone enlisted 15,000 dogs, of which 5,321 died.

An "ambulance dog" in action

Armies mobilized and militarized dogs (and other animals) through official and institutional channels. But at the same time, soldiers and animals came together in more intimate and informal ways in the “more-than-human” trench environment. Pet-keeping offered company, amusement, and an emotional outlet. As novelist and veteran Pierre Dumarchey recalled, even the ‘hardest [soldiers] softened in front’ of their animals. Second Lieutenant Hector MacQuarrie of the Royal Field Artillery, who was hugely attached to his Brussels Griffin cross, advised American soldiers to keep a pet because they ‘humanize the front’ and ‘keep you from being too lonely at night.’ Pet dogs were also common in the German trenches; most famously, Adolf Hitler kept a fox-terrier named Fuchs as a pet. Alongside gardening and adding ‘homely touches’ to the trenches, such as mirrors and family portraits, pet-keeping became a way of coping emotionally with trench life and alleviating its dispiriting mixture of physical hardship, fear, and boredom.

Whatever the film’s flaws, Warhorse has shed light on the animal history of the Western Front. Much more research is needed to uncover the ways in which animals, such as dogs, horses, and pigeons, unwittingly sustained the harsh militarized environment of the Western Front.

This post is extracted from my forthcoming book; Chris Pearson, Mobilizing Nature: The Environmental History of War and Militarization in Modern France (Manchester University Press, August 2012)