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Thursday 19 January, 2017
While we have and continue to build memorials to these loyal and brave creatures, I often reflect upon how much worse things would have been for our soldiers without the services provided by the wide variety of animals that were also drawn into the Great War and subsequent conflicts.
Carrier pigeons were the first animals to receive war medals. The method of passing messages by strapping pieces of paper to their tiny legs, saved thousands of lives. These messages would not have reached their intended destination in time to save lives if it weren’t for the ability of these clever little birds. Pigeons had a 95% success rate and prompted the enemy to bring in hawks to hunt the pigeons down.
More than 136, 000 horses were sent with Australian troops. Known as ‘walers’ they formed Australia’s Light Horse, while also providing essential services such as hauling supplies, ammunition and equipment -jobs also shared by donkeys and camels. Tragically, only one of these horses returned home at the end of the war. ‘Sandy’ was the mount of Major General Sir William Bridges, himself killed at Gallipoli in 1915. Sandy was returned to Australia and put out to pasture until his death in 1923.
A rooster chick was adopted as a mascot by a group of Australian soldiers in Egypt. The soldiers named him Jack, and as the story is told, he was better than any guard dog you could ever find. According to the soldiers, Jack would attack any stranger who approached their lines.
Cats dispatched to the trenches and on ships were used to kill vermin and detect gas.
A wide variety of K9s were used in the war for a diverse range of tasks depending on their size, intelligence and training. While medium to large sized dogs were used as sentries, messengers and scouts, smaller terrier sized dogs were trained to hunt and kill vermin in the trenches. Casualty dogs, or ‘mercy dogs’ as they were known, equipped with medical supplies, would go out into no man’s land to find wounded soldiers. The soldiers tended to their own injuries using the supplies delivered by the dogs, however if their injuries were fatal, the mercy dogs would wait with the wounded soldier until he succumbed to his injuries.
A dog named Digger was smuggled to Gallipoli and the Western Front. He was not an official service dog, more of a mascot, however he performed the duties of a service dog once he was in country.
Digger accompanied his owner, Sergeant James Harold Martin, during his service overseas and is said to have served three and a half years with the AIF. Martin, an electrician from Hindmarsh in South Australia, enlisted on 18 September 1914. Digger seems to have been a stray dog that attached himself to soldiers training at Broadmeadows in Victoria and followed them down to the troopships. Martin adopted Digger as a mascot and they sailed from Melbourne on 20 October 1914. In the description of Digger’s service it mentions that he ‘went over the top’ 16 times and had been through some of the worst battles on Gallipoli and the Western Front. He had been wounded and gassed at Pozieres in 1916, shot through the jaw, losing three teeth, was blinded in the right eye and deaf in the left ear. At the sound of a gas alarm, it was reported that Digger would rush to his nearest human companion to have his gas mask fitted. There are also accounts of Digger taking food to wounded men stranded in no man’s land, sometimes bringing back written messages.
Sergeant Martin returned to Australia on 12 May 1918. Digger accompanied him – quarantine regulations did not come into force until June 1918. Upon their return to Australia Sergeant Martin and Digger continued to do their bit for the war effort by attending ceremonies and marches in support of recruitment, fundraising and returning service personnel.
Digger had been wounded and gassed at Pozieres in 1916 and required cod liver oil for his burns. As this was expensive at the time a picture postcard of Digger, wearing the inscribed silver collar made for him on his return to Australia, with patriotic red, white and blue ribbons attached, was produced. The money raised was used to buy the oil. Digger died, as an old dog, on Empire Day (24 May – year not known) when he was frightened by the celebratory fireworks. Thinking he was under fire again he attempted to jump the fence but failed and fell back with a burst blood vessel. Digger managed to crawl back into the house and died on his master’s bed.
All of the tasks that these animals performed during their service were crucial. One of the most important roles they played was that of a companion, a friend in a hostile land, a source of consolation in times of need, someone to tell your secrets and fears to, including Jack the guard rooster.
I like to think that even just for a moment, in the middle of all the carnage they faced, our soldiers found a few moments of comfort with their animal comrades.
Another valuable service is now also recognised at home, in the form of assistance and companion animals for servicemen and women suffering from service related conditions. It has been proven that interaction with a friendly pet has significant health benefits both in the areas of physical and mental health. Organisations such as ‘Operation K9’ and “Young Diggers Dog Squad” are training and providing dogs as therapy to returned service personnel with incredible results. Yet just another affirmation that these creatures are most certainly more than just a simple animal.