The Animals of War

Though the first shots were fired on July 28, 1914 the declarations of a war that was to bring about the downfall of four Imperial powers, change the map of Europe and destroy the lives of millions were not issued until August 3 and 4th. Until that point the tensions that had arisen from the entirely serendipitous assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie had been more like a family squabble than the prologue to a devastating war that would resound into our current century.  It was only going to last a few weeks but by November of the same year the editor of the Canadian magazine Maclean’s wrote, “Some wars name themselves. This is the Great War.”

As a nation Canada’s first overseas war had been the Second South African War (the Boer War) in 1899; Canada sent troops but the country was bitterly divided along political and provincial lines about joining the conflict.  At the outset Sir Wilfred Laurier, the Prime Minister at the time, sent 1000 soldiers to support the Mother Land; ultimately over 7000 Canadians were to serve in that far away war and 267 were to die.

In 1902 the school children of Ottawa contributed their pennies to pay for a Memorial to citizens of Ottawa who lost their lives in the Second South African War (1899-1902). It was the first time that the Canadian military were involved in a foreign conflict and it caused deep divisions within the country. Of the 7000 Canadians (including many nursing sisters) who fought 267 died; amongst them the 16 volunteers from Ottawa whose names are on the memorial.

The dead and lost of that war are remembered in monuments throughout the country – the one in Confederation Park in Ottawa was erected within months of the end of the conflict.  But it took almost a century (2012) before another troop of heroes from the Boer War and their successors in the First and Second World Wars were to be remembered:  the animals in war.

Dedicated in November 2012 this wonderful memorial to Animals in War in Confederation Park was created by David Clendining, a local sculptor. The three rocks, each bearing a bronze plaque rest on a concrete bases imprinted with paw and hoof prints. A medical assistance dog stands guard over the memorial – quiet but vigilant: devoted to his task.

Fittingly the Animals in War Dedication was installed next to the South African War memorial in Confederation Park.  Canada supplied over 50,000 horses for the mounted troops of the combined Commonwealth cavalry in our first international conflict as a nation.  When Britain declared war on Germany one hundred years ago today Canada was automatically brought into the conflict.  The Canadian Expeditionary Force was as volunteer army – conscription was not introduced until 1917 – and first wave of men left Val Cartier in October of 1914 eager to fight “the hun”.   Along with them went dogs, horses and mules to once again give support.

For centuries, animals have demonstrated an enduring partnership with humans during times of war.They have served as means of transportation, beasts of burden, messengers, protectors and mascots.Still today, dogs use their unique, sharply tuned instincts to detect mine clusters, and conduct search and rescue operations. We remember the contribution and sacrifice of all animals.

The footprints  of dogs, mules and horses heading into the battlefield are imprinted in the concrete slabs that from the base of the memorial.  Mules carried panniers and artillery; Horses carried mounted troops and hauled field guns; Carrier pigeons delivered messages to specific destinations; and Dogs were used as messengers, medical assistants, bomb detectors, and search and rescue workers.  Even the lowly glowworm served as a source of light for reading maps in the trenches.  They all left their mark on the battlefield and often in the hearts of their human comrades.

This life-sized statue of a medical service dog stands guard over the Dedication. She is wearing an authentic rendering of a medical backpack that dogs carried in the First World War.

Relentless shelling in the First World War (1914-1918) left huge craters of mud and sewage. Horses and mules could best navigate these difficult conditions to supply the front and evacuate the wounded.

At the high school I attended in Winnipeg, there was a large World War I depiction, a painting that hung on the walls. One image was etched indelibly into my mind: teams of horses and mules, eyes inflamed with fear, straining on their harness as they and their human comrades, with their shoulder to the wheel, struggled to free supply wagons stuck in shell holes full of mud.
Lloyd Swick
Animals in War Dedication Project

Horses carried soldiers, and pulled gun carriages, supply wagons and ambulances. Many paid the ultimate price and their loss was mourned by those they served.

This detail is modeled after a painting by Fortunino Matania:  
Goodbye Old Man

There was another painting that hung on that high school wall which was stunning in the emotion it evoked – it remained in my mind throughout all these years.  It has served as an inspiration for the design of the War Animals Dedication Project.

An artist, Fortunio Matania, had been sent to Menin, Belgium to capture the meaning of war. This portrayal was the result. Aptly entitled “Goodbye Old Friend,” it showed a gunner knelt down, holding the head of his horse in his lap, bidding his comrade farewell.  The horse is mortally wounded and awaits death.  Imagine the anguish felt by the gunner, being forced to shoot his companion with whom he shared the hardships of war; a companion with whom he had developed a close bond of friendship, trust, loyalty and admiration. I had read one account of war, where an entire battery, about 150 strong, filed by and kissed their dying horse. Obviously the horse must have been loved and served the battery faithfully over the years.

Lloyd Swick
Animals in War Dedication Project

A few years ago I posted an item on the Animals in War Monument in London which Lloyd Swick credits with planting the seed of a like monument here in Ottawa.  Though perhaps not as impressive as its London counterpart I find it a fitting tribute to the animals who – as we are reminded on the London memorial – had no choice.

A click on the image below will take you to the website of the Animals in War Dedication which has a wealth of information and stories of the “Beasts of War”. 

August 4 – 70: The destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans.

Beasts of Battle

In the famous Charge of the Light Brigade it is estimated that the British lost over 335 horses and that during the 1914-18 War on the Belgian Front alone 800,000 horses were killed. And a conservative figure lists 40,000 war dogs used by the Allied Forces died in that same conflict which ended in a stalemate and an Armistice. The totals for other campaigns are as staggering for animals that served as mounts, war machines, carriers and vehicles of communications.

And given that the British are known for their animal rights activism I am frankly surprised that it has taken so long for a monument to be erected remembering the animals that died in various armed campaigns throughout the ages. In a city overwhelmed with monuments in prominent locations to long forgotten heroes (?) of often long forgotten wars it is a shame that this lovely tribute to those who did not have “ a choice” is lost in the middle of one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city. I happened upon it as I was leaving Hyde Park near Speakers’ Corner to cross Park Lane and return to the hotel.

The monument was created by sculptor David Backhouse and dedicated in November 2004 by the Princess Royal in the presence of a goodly number of people who had contributed to its creation including Dame Vera Lynn. When I passed it on Friday there were still wreaths strewn around the base from last November 11th commemorations from various animal societies and individuals as well as a few more recent tributes.

The four bronze figures parade through a crevice in a stone wall lead by a cavalry horse. the rear of the procession being brought up by, it seems to me, a sad and rather reluctant mule carrying munitions. I do find it strange that in this procession the dog cannot be viewed through the crevice in line with the other animals – though that may just be my prejudice in favour of canines speaking.

Though the dog in question does appear to be looking back and urging on the ghost image of his fellows incised into the back wall – the elephants, camels, goats, horses and birds used in the various battles that Britain has fought through the centuries and throughout the world. In a rather strange oversight though a flight of carrier pigeons are included the caged wrens that were used to test for the presence of poisoned air during the Great War are missing.

But the mere fact that this tribute exists is a wonder and the fact that while I was photographing it a good number of people stopped to look at it. There was one trio of young trendy types who ended up spending as much time as I did looking at it and an overheard comment suggested it had made them stop and reflect in a way that other monuments to forgotten battles had not.

Perhaps it is my own fondness for animals but I found it a touching and emotionally moving tribute to creatures that went into battle because “They had no choice.”

23 febbraio – San Policarpo