Animals in the military during World War I

 

During the war, animals were used by warring armies because of their unique ability to undertake tasks that were difficult or impossible for humans. Over challenging terrain, they carried messages and transported equipment, people and supplies. They also helped to find people and save lives. Unfortunately, many animals suffered and died as a result of the war.

Camels

Camels can travel long distances with heavy loads, through hot dry country. Before motorised transport was available, camels were useful for exploration and work in arid regions. They were imported into Australia from the 1860s and used in the outback. During the war, the Allies used camels during the Middle East campaigns to transport equipment and people.

Fresh supplies from ships came ashore on barges and then travelled by camel to military camps. Some camels were used as ambulances, with stretcher-like cacolets attached to their saddles.

The dromedary is a single-humped camel native to the Middle East and North Africa that can:

  • carry up to 145kg
  • survive without water for up to 6 days
  • travel over 40km a day

Camels eat almost any green vegetation they can find in the desert.

The Imperial Camel Corps Brigade was formed in Egypt in 1916. The Corps included men from Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. In 1918, the Corps was disbanded and the men transferred to the Australian Light Horse brigades due to changing requirements.

4 soldiers on a camel with 3 others nearby
Australian troops returning to Egypt from Gallipoli joined the first Camel Corps in 1916. AWM A03584A

Dogs

Dogs worked as guards, messengers, saved lives and were also companion animals.

Sometimes dogs were used to carry important messages when telephone links or wireless failed. A message was secured in a canister attached to the dog’s collar. The dogs were trained to operate in the noise and chaos of battle, and they could move quickly around shell holes and through trenches.

A soldier with 3 dogs on leashes
Corporal James Coull from the 4th Division Signal Company with messenger dogs, Nell, Trick and Bullet, France 1918 AWM E02318

Teams of large dogs could be used to haul heavy equipment, such as carts loaded with a machine gun or ammunition.

Many dogs were adopted as mascots and pets.

Donkeys and mules

Donkeys are smaller than horses and are well suited to hot rugged environments. They can travel quickly over rough country, even when weighed down with a heavy load.

Many donkeys were brought ashore at Gallipoli to help with transport. They would haul ammunition, supplies and water from Anzac Cove up the steep hillsides to the men in the trenches. They also became walking ambulances.

Private John 'Jack' Simpson of the 3rd Field Ambulance became famous for using donkeys at Gallipoli. Simpson would lead a donkey to carry wounded men from the front line to the beach for treatment. He worked with donkeys every day until he was killed in action on 19 May 1915.

Private Simpson with a donkey and a wounded soldier, Gallipoli 1915. AWM J06392

Horses

Horses were needed for the officers and many of the troops in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during the war.

The Australian Government preferred to buy Waler horses because they were:

  • medium-sized tough bush horses
  • more suited to a fast walk or smooth canter, instead of an unsettling trot
  • suitable for heavy pack duties
  • tolerant of extreme stress from lack of food and water

Walers were well suited to the desert conditions in the Sinai Campaign.

Most horses need about 30L of water per day, but a Waler in the Middle East could survive up to 3 days without a drink. They proved to be better than camels for quickly transporting troops to a battle.

Individual horses were selected for their ability to carry up to 120kg, day after day. This load included a rider, saddle and horse tack, rations for the horse and rider, a bedroll, clothing, rifle and ammunition.

While on the move, the horses were fed from a nosebag, a canvas bag filled with feed and tied over its head.

A soldier on a horse
Lieutenant James Holland, 14th Australian Light Horse Regiment, mounted on his horse 'Lady' at Surafend, Palestine, 1918 AWM J05636

During the war, horses were used as transport to:

  • deliver mail
  • pull heavy military equipment and ambulance wagons
  • carry the wounded out of battle
Soldiers on horse drawn wagons travel along a dirt road
Horse-drawn Australian general service wagons travelling along an unsurfaced road to obtain supplies from an Army Service Corps dump in France, circa 1916 to 1918. AWM EZ0001

Australia shipped some 120,000 horses overseas during the war. More than 81,000 were sent to India. Over 39,000 horses served with the AIF, mostly in Egypt and Palestine with the Australian Light Horse.

The AIF horses travelled by ship with the men.

It took about 6 weeks to ship the horses from Australia to Egypt or England. Sadly some horses died on the voyage.

To prevent illness during transport, decks were kept clean, horses well fed and stalls well ventilated. The horses were massaged regularly to keep them healthy. In the port, they were often unloaded one by one using a crane.

A horse lifted in a sling on a ship
A horse in a sling being loaded onto HMS Cardiganshire off Lemnos after the evacuation from Gallipoli, for the return trip to Egypt, 1915 AWM A01237

The AIF sent more than 6000 horses to the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915 but most were returned to Egypt. The rugged hills and gullies of the Gallipoli peninsula more suitable for donkeys.

A paddock of horse with bags of feed covering their muzzle
Horses with nose bags of fodder tethered by lead and heel ropes on the picket lines at Mena camp, Egypt, 1916. AWM A00590

Just as the soldiers needed food every day, so did their horses. Food for horses is called 'fodder'. Each horse needed the equivalent of a bale of hay per week.

Soldiers on a horse drawn wagon wait in a large area with bags stacked in piles
Soldiers load a horse-drawn wagon and local men work on the ground amongst stacks of stores, including bags of fodder, in the lines of 20th Australian Army Supply Company (AASC). AWM P00037.005

The original caption of this image reads:

A general view of our supply company at Heliopolis 2nd oasis camp. There are three companies in the 20th ASC the first, second, & third. Every third day it falls to our lot to supply all the units with fodder for the horses which total something like 5,000. What you see here in the picture will only last for one day. It averages about 1/6 a day for each horse to feed & it is costing the Government a nice little penny. They do very little work.

Caring for a horse included many extra daily tasks:

  • grooming (rubbed, massaged and brushed)
  • hooves cleaned and polished
  • exercise to keep fit and increase stamina
  • feeding and watering
  • training to obey commands and withstand battle noises

Specialist horse handlers and veterinarians travelled with the horses and helped to prepare them for battle.

Famous Australian poet Banjo Paterson, who wrote the poem 'Waltzing Matilda', was an experienced horseman. During the war, he was a Major in command of a remount squadron. Paterson also worked as a journalist and ambulance driver during the war.

On the Western Front in Belgium and France, opposing lines of trenches were dominated by artillery, mortars, machine guns and small arms. The trenches were bombed by aircraft. Conditions were made worse by cold, rain and mud. This was a terrifying place for horses and other animals.

Australian war correspondent, Charles Bean, wrote in his diary:

The poor old things were covered with dry mud, their tails clotted with it, their eyes blinking at you through it.

No animals used in the war could be brought home due to Australia’s strict quarantine laws, which helped to prevent the spread of animal and plant disease and pests. Some men tried to smuggle small animals home, and sometimes they succeeded.

At the end of the war, Australians had to decide what to do with more than 20,000 horses in the Middle East and Europe. In France, Belgium and England, the horses were sold to locals. In Egypt, donkeys and camels were more popular work animals, and many soldiers feared their horses might be mistreated. Commanders decided to give some horses away. Many horses were sold to the British Indian Army, which had purchased many Waler horses from Australia before the war.

Horses that were too old or unfit to give away had their manes shorn and shoes removed before being euthanised by a veterinary officer. No doubt, many light horsemen were very sad to farewell their horses.

Only one horse is known to have returned after the war. Sandy the Waler was originally owned by Major General William Bridges, who died at Gallipoli. Then Sandy served in Egypt and France until, after months in an English quarantine station, he returned to Melbourne by ship in 1918. When the horse died years later, his head was displayed in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Pigeons

The pigeon is a hard-working military bird. Pigeons can fly fast over very long distances - without stopping - and they have very strong 'homing' instincts to help them find their way back home to their loft.

The Australian Corps Signal Company used pigeons kept pigeons in lofts. The birds were delivered to the front line in baskets and released with messages on the situation.

The birds would carry messages in small containers attached to their legs, or in small pouches looped over their backs.

When a pigeon returned to the loft, its message was secured and the valuable information was reported.

Sometimes a message didn't get back to base. Pigeons could be shot down by the enemy, blown off course in bad weather, or die of exhaustion.

A soldier rides a motorbike carrying a basket on his back
A despatch rider is seen leaving the Signal Office and Headquarters of the 4th Australian Divisional Signalling Company at Vaulx for the forward units with a basket containing carrier pigeons, France, 1917. AWM E00646

Mascots for military units

Sometimes animals served as mascots or symbols for military units during the war. Dogs were the most popular companions. They provided friendship and comfort to the soldiers before and after deployment to the front.

The unusual mascot of the 2nd Divisional Signals Company in France was 'Jackie' the rooster, who had come from Egypt as a chick.

Ship's cats were common on ships to catch the rats. The mascot of HMAS Encounter was a kitten who would sit inside a large naval gun.

Some troops brought animals from Australia to Egypt, like kangaroos and koalas, but they could not go home again due to the cost and quarantine laws. At the end of the war, many were donated to the Cairo Zoo, which was said to have a large collection of Australian native animals in the 1950s.

AIF troops smuggled a kangaroo into their training camp near Cairo, Egypt, 1914. AWM C02588

During and after the war, animals helped soldiers who were recovering in hospitals.

In Melbourne, 'Cocky' the cockatoo became a mascot for veterans in No. 1 Red Cross Rest Home. He was known to use colourful words that made the nurses blush and the soldiers laugh. He even spoke some German. One nurse recalled that Cocky 'gave much pleasure to many a sick man'.

Veterinary care

The Australian Army Veterinary Corps was formed in 1909 to care for horses in the military.

Veterinarians treated animals with wounds and injuries, and inoculated them against dangerous diseases if vaccines were available. They also looked after their teeth.

Horses were often injured when they stepped on nails. The nail injury was called a 'PUN', which stood for 'picked-up nail'. Nails became a common source of lameness because they were left in the ashes of burned packing boxes, which were raked out onto roadways on the Western Front.

A soldier bandaging a horse's fetlock and two soldier's rolling up a bandage at the 9th Australian Mobile Veterinary Section, attached to the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade, Lebanon, 1918. AWM B00761

The 9th Australian Mobile Veterinary Section, attached to the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade, in camp. The horse in foreground is having his fetlock bandaged and two soldiers are stretching out a bandage ready to roll it up.

Memorials to animals

Thinking about the animals that died during wartime makes us sad. We can also feel proud and thankful that they worked hard to help save lives. At many memorials, animals help us to remember the people who served in the war and those who died.

A bronze sculpture of 2 soldiers and a donkey
A sculpture of Jack Simpson and his donkey at the Australian War Memorial ART40983

Last updated: 23 January 2020

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