Mitochondrial DNA analysis of Felis silvestris catus, the common house cat, suggests two great waves of expansion. First came the dawn of agriculture, when grain stores attracted vermin. Genetic examination suggests all cats descend from one of five feline ancestors: the Sardinian, European, Central Asian, Subsaharan African or the Chinese desert cat.
The second “cat-spansion” occurred later, as man took to water. From trade routes to diplomatic missions and military raids, men on ships needed food, and that meant rodents. The “ship’s cat” was a feature of life at sea from that day to this, first helping to control damage to food stores, ropes and woodwork and, in modern times, electrical wiring.
A Viking site in North Germany dating ca 700-1000AD, contains the remains of one cat with Egyptian mitochondrial DNA. Once driven nearly to extinction, the Norwegian Forest cat (Norwegian: Norsk skogkatt) descends from Viking-era ship’s cats, brought to Norway from Great Britain sometime around 1000AD.
Who knew? Vikings had cats!
Not without reason, were cats seen as good luck. The power of cats to land upright is due to extraordinarily sensitive inner ears, capable of detecting even minor changes in barometric pressure. Sailors paid careful attention to the ship’s cat, often the harbinger of foul weather ahead.
Clockwise: 1. Ship’s cat, HMS Queen Elizabeth, Gallipoli Peninsula, 1915, 2. USS Flusser’s cat, “Wockle” 3. Ship’s cats “inspect” the breech of a 4-inch gun aboard an unidentified US ship. 4. Togo, ships cat aboard the HMS Dreadnought,
And if you’re ever in Vicksburg, you can stop and visit the grave site of Douglas, the Confederate camel.
When the “Great War” arrived in 1914, animals of all kinds were dragged along. Cats performed the same functions in vermin infested trenches, as those at sea.
1. Gunner with the regimental cat in a trench in Cambrin, France, February 6th, 1918. 2. Officers of the U.S. 2nd Army Corps with a cat discovered in the ruins of Le Cateau-Cambrésis 3. Trench cat, Gallipoli Peninsula, 1915
Tens of thousands of dogs performed a variety of roles, from ratters to sentries, scouts and runners.
“Mercy” dogs were trained to seek out the wounded on battlefields, carrying medical supplies with which the stricken could treat themselves.
The French trained specialized “chiens sanitaire” to seek out the dead and wounded, and bring back bits of uniform. Often, dogs simply provided the comfort of another living soul so the gravely wounded, should not die alone.
With the hell of no mans land all but impassable for human runners, dogs stepped in, as messengers. “First Division Rags” ran through a cataract of falling bombs and chemical weapons. Gassed and partially blinded with shrapnel injuries to a paw, eye and ear, the little guy still got his message where it needed to be.
Other times, birds were the most effective means of communication. Carrier pigeons by the tens of thousands flew messages of life and death importance for Allied and Central Powers, alike.
During the Meuse-Argonne offensive of 1918, Cher Ami saved 200 men of the “Lost Battalion”, arriving in her coop with a bullet through the breast, one eye shot out and a leg all but torn off, hanging by a single tendon.
Even the lowly garden slug pitched in. Extraordinarily sensitive to mustard gas, “slug brigades” provided the first gas warnings, allowing precious moments in which to “suit up”.
The keen senses of animals were often the only warning of impending attack.
Private Albert Marr’s Chacma baboon Jackie would give early warning of enemy movement or impending attack with a series of sharp barks, or by pulling on Marr’s tunic.
One of many gut wrenching episodes of the Great war took place in April, 1918. The South African Brigade withdrew under heavy shelling through the West Flanders region of Belgium.
Jackie was seen, frantically building a stone wall around himself as jagged splinters wounded his arm and all but tore off the animal’s leg.
Even with all that Jackie refused to be carried off by stretcher-bearers, instead hobbling about on his shattered limb, trying to finish his wall
Constituted on June 13, 1917, British Aero Squadron #32 kept a red fox, as unit mascot.
The famous Lafayette Escadrille kept a pair of lion cubs, called Whiskey and Soda.
German soldiers in Hamburg, enlisted the labor of circus elephants in 1915.
The light cruiser Dresden was scuttled and sinking fast in 1914, leaving the only creature on board to swim for it. An hour later an Ensign aboard HMS Glasgow spotted a head, struggling in the waves. Two sailors dove in and saved the animal, a pig they called “Tirpitz”, after the German Admiral. Tirpitz the pig served out the rest of the war not in a frying pan but as ship’s mascot, aboard the HMS Glasgow.
No beast who served in the Great war was as plentiful nor as ill used as the beast of burden and none so much, as the horse. Horses were called up by the millions, along with 80,000 donkeys and mules, 50,000 camels and 11,000 oxen. The United States alone shipped a thousand horses a day “over there” between 1914, and 1917.
Horsepower was indispensable throughout the war from cavalry and mounted infantry to reconnaissance and messenger service, as well as pulling artillery, ambulances, and supply wagons. With the great value horses contributed to the war effort and their difficulty in replacement, the loss of a horse was a greater tactical problem in some areas, than the loss of a man.
Few ever returned. An estimated three quarters died of wretched working conditions: Exhaustion. The frozen, sucking mud of the western front. The mud-borne and respiratory diseases. The gas, artillery and small arms fire. An estimated eight million horses were killed on all sides, enough to start a line in Boston and make it all the way to London and back, twice, if such a thing was possible.
The United Kingdom entered the war with only eighty motorized vehicles, conscripting a million horses and mules, over the course of the war. Only one in sixteen, lived to come home.
Neither knowing nor caring why they were there, the animals of the Great War suffered at prodigious rates. Humane organizations stepped up, the British Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) processing some 2.5 million animals through veterinary hospitals. 1,850,000 were horses and mules. 85% were treated and returned to the front.
The American Red Star Animal Relief Program sent medical supplies, bandages, and ambulances to the front lines in 1916, to care for horses injured at a rate of 68,000 per month.
The century before the Great War was a Golden age, mushrooming populations enjoying the greatest rise in living standards, in human history. The economy at home would be dashed to rags and atoms by the Great War. Trade and capital as a proportion of the global economy would not recover to 1913 levels, until 1993.
World War 2 wasn’t quite as ‘motorized’ as you might imagine. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union alone deployed no fewer than six million horses.
In the north, Reindeer proved far more successful than either horses or motorized transport.
Camels were extensively used in WW2 and not just in north Africa. Following the battle of Stalingrad, the Red army took to using camels in the southern theater. One thousand-animal “camel battalion” carried some twelve thousand tons of cargo across the primitive Kalmyk Steppes, a job which would have required 134 trucks.
The 308th Rifle Division used a Bactrian camel called “Kuznechik”, Russian for “grasshopper”, for transport of food and other equipment. Kuznechik followed this mostly Siberian unit all the way to Berlin, where his handler taught him to spit on the ruins of the Reichstag building.
Animals were even combatants during WW2 though hardly, by their own choice. The Soviet Red Army used dogs as suicide bombers, trained to seek out and destroy enemy tanks. The problem was that dogs were trained using Soviet diesel-powered tanks and not the gas-fueled tanks of the Wehrmacht. It didn’t take long to figure out. Dogs were going after the wrong tanks.
The US even experimented with “bat bombs” and pigeon-guided munitions. Both projects were scrapped without ever going into use as the weapon system’s lethality, was limited to taxpayer dollars.
Not so with the Soviet’s use of Tularemia-infected rats. Following General von Paulus’ surrender after the Battle of Stalingrad, some fifty percent of German soldiers were found to be sick with the disease.
Unseen amidst the economic devastation of the home front, was the desperate plight of animals. Turn-of-the-century social reformer Maria Elizabeth “Mia” Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals in 1917, working to lighten the dreadful state of animal health in Whitechapel, London. To this day, the PDSA is one of the largest veterinary charities in the United Kingdom, carrying out over a million free veterinary visits, every year.
The “Dickin Medal” was instituted on December 2, 1943, honoring the work performed by animals, in WW2.
The “animal’s Victoria Cross”, the highest British military honor equivalent to the American Medal of honor, is awarded in recognition of “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving or associated with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units.”
The Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times, recipients including 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and a cat. An honorary Dickin was awarded in 2014, in honor of All animals serving in the Great War.
Two Dickins were awarded on this day in 2007, the first to Royal Army Veterinary Corps explosives detection dog “Sadie”, a Labrador Retriever whose bomb detection skills saved the lives of untold soldiers and civilians in Kabul, in 2005. The second went to “Lucky”, a German Shepherd and RAF anti-terrorist tracker serving during the Malaya Emergency of 1949 – ’52. Part of a four-dog team including “Bobbie”, “Jasper” and “Lassie”, Lucky alone survived the “unrelenting heat [of] an almost impregnable jungle“.
Handler Beval Austin Stapleton was on-hand to receive Lucky’s award. “Every minute of every day in the jungle” he said, “we trusted our lives to those four dogs, and they never let us down. Lucky was the only one of the team to survive our time in the Malayan jungle and I’m so proud of the old dog today. I owe my life to him.”
Ship’s cat, Her Majesty’s Australian Ship (HMAS) Encounter, World War I
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