by Dania Sheldon
Originally published in The Flying Shingle, November 17, 2013
Like numerous people in our community – indeed, across Canada – several of my family members have been soldiers. A great-uncle died at Vimy Ridge. His brother, my great-grandfather, survived the Western Front and raised another soldier, my grandfather, who in WWII served in an armoured car regiment that helped liberate the Netherlands (where he met and married my grandmother). Other relatives have served in Cyprus and here in Canada.
So, I grew up with an all-pervasive awareness of the World Wars, of war more generally, and of the impact of such conflicts upon soldiers and civilians. However, not until just a few years ago, when I was doing research to teach Timothy Findley’s masterful novel, The Wars, did I stop to really think about the animals who have suffered through and, in the staggering millions, died during armed conflicts.
According to the UK government, “[e]ight million horses and countless mules and donkeys died in the First World War,” frequently “suffering agonising deaths from wounds, starvation, thirst, exhaustion, disease, and exposure.” Over 100,000 pigeons served Britain alone in World War I and over 200,000 in World War II.
Stories of heroism include Simon, the ship’s cat on HMS Amethyst. Simon was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal (“the animals’ Victoria Cross”) for protecting the crews’ rations by catching rats whilst the ship was trapped for 101 days on the Yangtze River – despite Simon having suffered major injuries.
Dogs, unsurprisingly, also played vital roles and continue to do so today. Treo, a bomb sniffer dog, is the most recent of 27 dogs to receive the Dickin Medal for his life-saving work in Afghanistan.
Such expressions of recognition are important, not least to make us aware of the exponentially greater numbers of animals who have died and continue to do so in war, unhonoured, most of them unnamed and unrecognised as individuals.
Animals not officially in service can also play significant roles in the lives of soldiers. An uplifting example is Koshka, a homeless and abused kitten saved by US army Staff Sergeant Jesse Knott, in Afghanistan. Against army regulations, Knott kept the kitten with him in his small office. Soon, it was Koshka who was saving Knott, when two of his friends were killed in a suicide bomber attack. “He pulled me out of one of my darkest times,” said Knott. “He was my saving grace. He kept me alive during that tour.” And so, Koshka now is part of Knott’s family, in Oregon City.
In Ottawa last year, thanks to a campaign launched by 91-year-old WWII veteran Lloyd Swick, the Animals in War Dedication memorial was unveiled in Confederation Park. Swick’s inspiration, in part, was the experiences of his father-in-law, also a “vet,” but of a different sort – a veterinarian who in WWI looked after mules and horses in battle.
Another inspiration were the mules in the Battle of Passchendaele; the scant 4,000 surviving Canadian troops (of 20,000) were saved by these mules – no one else could get ammunition through to the front line.
This year, for the first time, some Gabriolans gathered after the traditional Remembrance Day ceremony to honour the animals who – as London’s majestic Animals in War Memorial notes – “had no choice”. Conscription was a given for them. “From the pigeon to the elephant, they all played a vital role in every region of the world in the cause of human freedom … Their contribution must never be forgotten.”
Selected Sources and Links:
London’s Animals in War Memorial: www.animalsinwar.org.uk
Britain’s Animal Heroes: news.bbc.co.uk/cbbcnews/hi/newsid_8530000/newsid_8536600/8536644.stm
Staff Sergeant Jesse Knott and Koshka: www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/27/jesse-knott-cat-koshka_n_2956859.html
Veteran Lloyd Swick: www.ottawasun.com/2012/10/22/veteran-wins-ottawa-memorial-for-animals-in-war
Ottawa’s Animals in War Dedication memorial:aiwdedication.ca