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Weapons of World War One:
War Dogs


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Dogs played a significant role in a number of armies during World War One, notably that of Belgium, France, Great Britain, Italy, Germany and Austria-Hungary. There are many accounts of dogs being used in Russia though official records are lacking. A variety of breeds were used but most were either German Shepherds or Doberman Pinchers. Trainability, strength, and agility were a top concern. Though trained by the military for specific tasks, these dogs spent most of their peacetime lives held in reserve under the care of private owners. Their whereabouts were usually kept recorded by dog clubs so that they could be quickly called to service if needed. Well over fifty-thousand dogs served in the Great War.

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There had already been a tradition of photographers posing dogs in human situations before the Great War, and it was only natural that this type of popular imagery be adapted to new circumstances. Many dogs now appeared on postcards armed and ready for battle. While real war dogs were not armed or uniformed, except for the colored unit tags on their collars and the occasional gas mask, they were often found serving on and behind the front lines in a number of capacities.

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Draught Dogs played an important role as carriers or haulers of heavy equipment and supplies. Their presence could free up the labor of men who could then be reassigned to combat roles. These dogs were often tethered to small wagons or sleds, and their size made them less conspicuous to the enemy if posted near the front lines.

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While much of dog hauling took place behind the front lines, some dogs were used to bring ammunition right up to men in a firing line by means of a harness and strapped to their backs. They could not be loaded down too much because they needed to remain agile to avoid enemy fire. Though they could often reach troops in the very front lines more quickly and safely than soldiers, they still took high casualties.

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In Belgium and the Netherlands large Mastiffs had long been used to pull milk carts, and so these dogs easily found roles within their military pulling wheeled machine guns along with ammunition. Light weight machine guns would not be developed until later in the War, so mounting them on dog drawn wagons added greatly to their mobility and speed of deployment. They also had the advantage over horses of being smaller targets and they could move around most trenches. These dogs were also trained to remain calm in combat situations where horses might panic. Dog drawn carts were a local curiosity before the War that caught the attention of many postcard publishers, and this trend continued with their new military role.

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Scout Dogs often accompanied patrols because their keen sense of smell could often alert soldiers of an enemy’s presence far faster than the human eye. These dogs were trained to point instead of barking since stealth was the key to these missions. The Germans probably made the most use of these dogs attaching a team to every battalion. The Germans also used dogs on their own early in the War to scout out the exact location of the enemy across no man’s land. Once the Allies realized that these barking dogs were giving away their position, they began to shoot them as they approached.

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Sentry dogs were used in a variety of situations. They might be assigned with their handler to guard important facilities or locations behind the lines or be stationed on the front line to guard against enemy incursions. Sometimes a dog might work alone in a trench, assigned to a peephole to watch out for enemy activity. They were especially useful at night when their keen senses could overpower extreme darkness and alert friendly soldiers to impending danger. These dogs were also trained to communicate through body language rather than barking so not to tip the enemy off.

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The conveyance of messages was not reliable at the front because telephone lines were frequently cut by shelling. A vast amount of redundancy had to be planned into communication systems, and one low tech method employed was to use Messenger Dogs. They could run fast over all types of terrain and were a smaller target for the enemy to hit. They where trained to know the location and names of all the outposts that they might be called to respond to. These dogs proved to be one of the most reliable methods of relaying messages on the battlefield. While they were more difficult to shoot than a man, thousands of dogs were wounded and killed in this role.

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While postcard publishers produced many images of the mangled carcasses of horses, they shied away from depicting dogs that were seriously injured or killed. This simply went beyond public tolerance considering the close relationship many people have with their pets. Dogs of course served more as pets than they did as warriors, and their was always a line that publishers dared not cross if they wanted to keep their customers. When images of wounded dogs do appear, they are already bandaged up thus ensuring the viewer that their safety is no longer an issue. Wounded dogs are also often paired with their wounded handler, demonstrating their strong bonds, bravery in action, and heroic nature.

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Mercy Dogs were especially good working at night or in finding solders that had crawled to obscure areas in search of safety. While they were used to guide Red Cross workers to the fallen, they also carried medical supplies that could be self-administered by wounded men. Many times these dogs became the last companion a dying soldier had.

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While it may seem silly to some to equate the service and bravery of dogs to that of soldiers on postcards, this was not just a fantasy of pet loving publishers. While most dogs seem to have taken wounds in anonymity, there were a number of animals that were actually honored in ceremony with medals. While this meant little to the dog, the award sometimes came with a pension to ensure that it could live out its life in good circumstances. Such pomp and honor only existed because there was a public appetite for it.

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Mercy or Ambulance Dogs were employed to find or carry first aid to wounded soldiers on the battlefield. Germany had begun to train dogs (Sanitatshunde), specifically for this purpose in the 1893 and by World War One these dogs were able to be deployed in large numbers.

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While all dogs serving in the military needed to be schooled, those serving as Mercy Dogs had to undergo more rigorous training to deal with all the complexities of serving the wounded. Once the War began it was found that some of the ways these dogs had been trained led to problems due to unforeseen battlefield conditions. They simply could not improvise beyond what they were so carefully taught. Procedures were constantly evaluated and redesigned so that these dogs were better prepared for the circumstances they met. Few postcards dealt with the training of dogs since there was probably more appeal to seeing them in action.

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Mercy Dogs were especially good working at night or in finding solders that had crawled to obscure areas in search of safety. While they were used to guide Red Cross workers to the fallen, they also carried medical supplies that could be self-administered by wounded men. Many times these dogs became the last companion a dying soldier had.

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Each nation trained their mercy dogs differently but they all had the same general approach early in the War. Once a dog found a wounded soldier (they were trained to ignore the dead) he would secure an article from him, and then seek out a Red Cross worker and show it as evidence of his discovery. They would then return together to attend to the wounded man. Many postcards illustrate dogs with caps in their mouths for this reason. This scenario did not always play out well for a variety of reasons. Sometimes there was no cap and the loosest thing a dog could remove might be a bandage. Some dogs would eventually be fitted with a loose collar which they could grab and hold in their mouth as a sign they found a wounded soldier.

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The German publisher Gerhard Stalling of Oldenberg was prolific in turning out charity cards depicting mercy dogs. They were also a very popular subject on Austrian Red Cross cards as most of these dogs were deployed in the East. They functioned best in open warfare, and the trench lines of the Western Front was just too static for them to be useful.

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War dogs were not pets; soldiers were under strict orders not to interfere with dogs while they were working, which greatly limited there interaction. It was another story for their handlers who spent much time with them, and strong attachments to these animals were often created. Quite a number of postcards were made to capture, and even honor this sort of bonding as it enhanced the character of the soldier.

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Besides being assigned to specific tasks, depending on their training, dogs often became mascots of military units. This helped to make life bearable for many soldiers under stress. While dogs may have been the most common mascot among soldiers, in part due to their ability to perform tasks, many other animals served this purpose as well. This was especially true in the Navy where various ports of call could provide a variety of exotic creatures.

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Many postcards were made depicting war dogs in action, but some were made simply to honor them. Individual dogs did receive recognition for their feats on the battlefield, and can sometimes be found posing with their medals on postcards. Many more cards just depict anonymous dogs that stand in for all canines. This was especially true in studio shots found on French hand colored real photo cards that generically promoted patriotism and sentimental themes.

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French propaganda postcards often test the kind heart of these dogs and their instinct to help. Here it is not unusual to find war dogs pissing on or into a German helmet or some symbolic variation of it. Some cards even have mercy dogs pissing on wounded Germans calling out for help. Dogs were indeed trained to recognize uniforms in order to tell friend from foe. While French cards were often vitriolic in their tone, the card above was eventually banned in 1915 because censors felt its mean spirit was demeaning to France.

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Each nation’s military used dogs with a different emphasis on the work they were required to do. Not all dogs were suitable for military work, and some breeds were able to perform specific tasks better than others. Despite this there was never a consensus on what breeds should be used, and each nation had its favorites. Even these personal difference lent fuel to the propaganda war as German war dogs were sometimes presented as brutal breeds that were perfectly suitable for the barbarians who owned them.

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Dogs were often anthropomorphized on comic cards and in political cartoons where different breeds stand in for different nations. In many of these cases the dog wears some element of a uniform like a cap or helmet to help assign it a national identity. While these dogs seem to be playing some military role it is pure fantasy. While it may seem that these cards are trying to attribute human characteristics to animals, it is just the opposite. They are symbols for the nation’s soldiers, and their purpose is to associate them with the ideals of loyalty and courage that are often found in dogs.




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