Veterans Day is a time to commemorate the brave men and women who are serving or have served in the armed forces. However, the service of animals during times of military conflict often goes unmentioned. Whether providing comfort, inspiration, or indispensable service, animals have played a crucial role in militaries and armed conflicts for centuries. World War I, which ended 96 years ago on November 11, was no exception. To honor our animal veterans, this post highlights five animals that made significant contributions to the Great War.
Pigeons played a crucial role in communication during World War I because of their speed and ability to fly at great heights. Their homing instincts also made pigeons extremely reliable and capable messengers—they could easily find their way back to their loft. Some of the lofts remained at army/division headquarters, while others were mobile, with soldiers carrying the lofts and pigeons on their backs as they moved throughout Europe.
Above: Peerless Pilot, a feathered hero of the war, worked at the U.S. Naval Air Station at Pauillac. During the last year of the war, he delivered 196 messages from the sea. Bottom: "Liberating a pigeon." William E. Moore and James C. Russell, U.S. Official Pictures of the World War Showing America's Participation Selected from the Official Files of the War Department (Washington, D.C.: Pictorial Bureau, 1920), 119.
Both the Allied and the Central Powers used tens of thousands of homing pigeons to send messages between military detachments. In fact, they were so important to communication during the war that the British Defence of the Realm Act made it a crime to kill, wound, otherwise molest, or not take adequate care of pigeons.
Cher Ami, one of two WWI pigeons in our collection, served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France with the American sector in Verdun. He delivered 12 messages, and in delivering the last one on October 4, 1918, he was shot through the breast and leg. Despite being gravely injured by enemy fire, he was able to carry on and save the lives of almost 200 men. The message that he delivered was from the "Lost Battalion" of the U.S. Army's 77th Infantry Division, who were trapped behind enemy lines and accidentally being shelled by American troops. The message from the 77th Infantry Division read: "WE ARE ALONG THE ROAD PARALELL [sic] 276.4. OUR ARTILLERY IS DROPPING A BARRAGE DIRECTLY ON US. FOR HEAVENS SAKE STOP IT." After receiving the message, the U.S. Army redirected its artillery fire and found and relieved the soldiers, bringing them back behind American lines.
Cher Ami, the savior of the "Lost Battalion"
For his bravery and outstanding service, the French government awarded Cher Ami with the Croix de Guerre with palm. The palm signifies the great importance of Cher Ami’s role in the battle. Unfortunately, Cher Ami died on June 13, 1919, from the wounds he sustained in the heroic delivery of his last message.
Like homing pigeons, Allied and Central Powers used dogs as messengers during World War I. Dogs could easily and much more subtly navigate trenches and battlefields than soldiers could, thus making them ideal ground messengers.
Dogs also served in several other capacities—for example, their keen sense of smell made them perfectly suited to finding wounded soldiers on the battlefield and in the trenches. This sense of smell, combined with dogs' excellent hearing, allowed them to serve as effective guards and scouts, particularly when it came to detecting nearby enemies. Man's best friend also filled the simple but essential need for comfort and companionship during times of great distress. In the United States, dogs were not officially incorporated into the military until World War II, but many still served with the armed forces. These dogs were most likely adopted by units on an individual basis as mascots, as in the case of Stubby.
Stubby with his numerous military decorations
Stubby was a Staffordshire terrier mix puppy adopted by Private J. Robert Conroy while he was training for combat. Stubby became the mascot of the 102nd Infantry, 26th Yankee Division, and he learned the calls, drills, and salutes. Private Conroy smuggled Stubby onto the SS Minnesota when the division shipped out to France, and Stubby won over the commanding officer when he gave the officer his dog salute.
When the division reached France, Stubby was allowed to accompany it to front lines and serve as their mascot—but he did much more.
Private J. Robert Conroy and Stubby in France
His sense of smell allowed him to detect enemy gas before the men, and he would run through the camp barking, sounding the alarm, and saving the lives of the troops. He also saved the lives of many soldiers because he could locate the wounded on the battlefield and would lead the soldiers to safety or bark until medics arrived.
One day, Stubby caught a German spy attempting to make a map of Allied trenches, and he attacked the man until American soldiers arrived. For this act, Stubby was unofficially promoted to sergeant.
By the end of the war, Stubby had served in 17 battles. At the Battle of Seicheprey on April 20, 1918, shrapnel from a shell seriously injured Stubby, and he was rushed to a field hospital for treatment and then to a Red Cross hospital for recovery. During his recovery, Stubby went around the hospital and visited wounded soldiers, boosting their morale. Stubby received many awards and medals for his outstanding service, including one awarded by General John Pershing.
Horses and Mules
Dogs and pigeons played a crucial a role in World War I, but horses and mules are perhaps the animals most commonly associated with the Great War. Sketches from the American Expeditionary Forces show both animals constantly in the background, and even the foreground, of American military activity.
Barn with Mules, Boucq. J. Andre Smith. Official Art from the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I.
They were used as beasts of burden to pull pieces of artillery, supply trains, and other materials. Horses also served as transportation for soldiers and as integral members of cavalry units. In fact, horses and their transportation capabilities were so important on the battlefields of the Great War that they were seen as the key to saving soldiers’ lives.
"He's Ready to Fight—Are You?" National Guard. Princeton University Poster Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center.
The American Red Star Animal Relief created posters that urged people to "Help the Horse to Save the Soldier," depicting a soldier holding his wounded horse. This relief organization was founded on June 27, 1916, with the purpose of functioning essentially as a Red Cross for U.S. Army animals.
American Red Star Animal Relief, organized by the American Humane Association, started a veterinary corps and recruited experienced veterinarians, blacksmiths, and stable hands to serve in its ranks. The organization created and distributed over 80,000 booklets to American soldiers that detailed first aid for horses, and it supplied veterinary ambulances and medical supplies to Army camps.
"Help the Horse to Save the Soldier." Fortunino Matania. American Red Star Animal Relief. Princeton University Poster Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center.
The new technology of machine guns and tanks made these efforts by the American Red Star Animal Relief all the more important because horses sustained much graver injuries. Today, the American Red Star Animal Relief is the American Humane Association's Red Star Animal Emergency Services. The Red Star now works on its own, responding to disasters such as Hurricane Sandy and animal cruelty cases.
The essential role that horses and mules played in World War I did not go unrecognized: the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum erected a plaque dedicated to the horses and mules that served in the American Expeditionary Forces during the Great War. It states, "A fitting tribute to their important services has been given by... General John J. Pershing who has written 'The army horses and mules proved of inestimable value in prosecuting the war to a successful conclusion. They were found in all the theaters of preparation and operation doing their silent but faithful work without the faculty of hoping for any reward or compensation.'" The plaque also says that "what they suffered is beyond words to describe."
Tribute to World War I Horses and Mules. Image courtesy of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum.
By the time soldiers noticed the presence of mustard gas on the battlefield, it was often too late. Dr. Paul Bartsch of the Division of Mollusks in the U.S. National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) discovered that slugs could detect mustard gas well before humans could. The slugs would visibly indicate their discomfort by closing their breathing pores and compressing their bodies, and soldiers in the trenches would quickly put on their gas masks to protect themselves from harmful levels of gas. The "slug brigade" ended up saving many lives.
Gas mask from World War I
What all of our soldiers sacrifice and suffer is beyond words to describe. This Veterans Day, as we remember and give thanks for the brave men and women who have given so much in the service of our country, let us also remember the animals who provided them aid, comfort, and companionship.
Leah Tams is the James Lollar Hagan intern in Armed Forces History. She recommends learning more about military cats, other animals in war, and the history of the Red Star. She also recommends Animals in the Military: From Hannibal’s Elephants to the Dolphins of the U.S. Navy by John M. Kistler.
In 1922, four years after her American son was killed in action in World War I, Sallie Maxwell Bennett received a letter from Emil Merkelbach, a German officer who had fought against her son in the battle that ended his life.
"You will look upon my writing, no doubt, as something unusual, and rightly so, for it is indeed not exactly usual for a former enemy of his own accord to report about his opponent in the World War. I was myself a German officer in the World War."
Emil Merkelbach was the leader of a German balloon squadron stationed in occupied northern France in August 1918. Balloons were used by both the Allied and Central powers during the war as a way to observe enemy targets at a greater distance and from behind the front lines, allowing armies to more accurately aim their long-range artillery. Antiaircraft machine guns defended the balloons from the ground and patrolling airplanes protected them from the air. Armies' reliance on balloon observations, and the firepower employed to protect them, made balloons both an important and dangerous target for fighter pilots like Louis Bennett Jr., Mrs. Bennett's son.
Louis, a Yale student from a prominent West Virginian family, had organized the West Virginia Flying Corps in early 1917 with the idea of training pilots to join the U.S. Army as part of a proposed West Virginia aerial unit. However, when the War Department rejected this idea and required that Louis go through the standard Army training program, he decided instead to join the British Royal Flying Corps (later the Royal Air Force or RAF) in October 1917 with the hope of fighting on the front as soon as possible. He left his studies at Yale in the middle of his Senior year and, after attending flight school in Canada and additional training in England, was eventually stationed in northern France in the summer of 1918.
During the ten days he served in combat before being killed in action, Louis shot down three enemy planes and nine balloons, four of which he shot down in one day. These feats not only earned him the distinction of being named a flying ace, and West Virginia's only World War I ace, but also placed him among the top of all World War I flying aces. Merkelbach saw Louis's impressive skill and total fearlessness first-hand on the battlefield, which he remembered years later and which eventually prompted him to write to Mrs. Bennett.
"[I] had an opportunity to admire the keenness and bravery of your son; for this reason I should like to give you the following short description [of Louis's final battle]. . . . I had been up several hours observing, and was at a height of 1000 meters. Over the enemy's front circled continuously two hostile airplanes. . . . I immediately gave the command to my men below to haul in my balloon. . . . When still about 300 meters high, I saw [another] German balloon . . . plunge to earth burning. At the same moment I saw the hostile flyer (Louis) come toward my balloon at terrific speed, and immediately the defensive fire of my heavy machine rifles below and of the anti-aircraft guns began; but the hostile aviator did not concern himself about that. . . . [He] opened fire on me. . . . I saw the gleaming fire of the missiles flying toward me, but fortunately was not hit. The hostile machine was shot into flames by the fire of my machine guns. The enemy aviator tried to spring from the aeroplane before the latter plunged to the ground and burned completely."
Merkelbach ordered the ambulance corps to attend to the "brave and severely wounded enemy." Louis was unconscious and severely burned. Both of his legs were broken, and he had a bullet wound in his head. He died just hours later in a German field hospital on August 24, 1918. The Germans buried him with military honors in an unmarked grave.
"A bold and brave officer had met his death."
Back home in West Virginia, four days after her son's death, Mrs. Bennett received a telegram from the Secretary of the British Air Ministry informing her that Louis was missing in action. She immediately wrote to her contacts in Europe offering a reward for more information and promising that she would spare no expense to locate the body if he had been killed. Having lost her husband to unexpected illness only weeks earlier, Mrs. Bennett spent a desolate and difficult two months waiting for word of her son. While she continued to work her contacts in Europe to try to locate Louis, she received a number of conflicting accounts from members of his squadron, some stating that he had been taken as a prisoner of war, some stating that he had been killed.
In the midst of all of this, she was also struggling to help settle her late husband's estate and became gravely ill with the "Spanish flu" that was sweeping the globe in a deadly pandemic. Finally, at the end of October 1918, she received official confirmation from the American Red Cross that Louis had been killed in action two months earlier. Although conflicting reports stated that he was buried in either France or Belgium, at last she knew that he was gone.
Mrs. Bennett spent the next several months attempting to travel to Europe to locate Louis's grave, first using her influential contacts to obtain a passport and, once in England, to gain permission to travel to France. Finally, in March 1919, with the help of the U.S. Army, the American Red Cross, and the local villagers, she found herself standing at his unmarked grave, number 590, in a military cemetery in Wavrin, near Lille in northern France. She had finally found her son.
Despite his distinguished combat service, Louis Bennett Jr. never received any service awards from either the British or American governments. In an attempt to right this wrong Mrs. Bennett spent the rest of her life honoring her son's memory, eventually erecting memorials in three different countries. The first memorial was completed in 1919 when she rebuilt the church in Wavrin, France where Louis was buried. The church and town had been utterly destroyed by the retreating German army, and Mrs. Bennett rebuilt the church in dedication to her son's memory on the one-year anniversary of his death. The rebuilt church was also her way of thanking the local curate and villagers who had not only helped her locate Louis's grave, but had helped her smuggle his remains out of the military cemetery, in direct violation of French law, so he could eventually be laid to rest in West Virginia.
The memorials continued in 1922 with a stained glass window in Westminster Abbey overlooking the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Dedicated to Louis and to all members of Royal Flying Corps who died in World War I, the window features Archangel Michael, the patron saint of airmen, looking down at Louis, who is depicted as an angel holding a shield. In 1923 she donated a 16th-century Flemish tapestry in honor of Louis to St. Thomas's Church in New York City, where he had been confirmed as a boy.
In 1922 Mrs. Bennett donated the family's mansion and extensive collection of books to Lewis County as a war memorial and public library in honor of her deceased husband and son. The Louis Bennett Public Library opened in 1923 and is still in operation today. Mrs. Bennett also had the local airport renamed in Louis's honor and established a memorial organization that met every year in Weston on the anniversary of Louis's death to honor his memory. On Armistice Day in 1925, she unveiled The Aviator, a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall bronze sculpture sitting on a granite base. Sculpted by Augustus Lukeman, the sculpture features Louis in uniform with wings on his back and is dedicated to all Americans who lost their lives in World War I. The pedestal bears the inscription, "And thus this man died, leaving his spirit as an example of able courage, not only unto young men, but unto all the nation."
Although never given an official award for his service, Louis Bennett Jr.'s courage and skill clearly inspired those around him to honor his memory in their own way: from the enemy German army that buried him with full military honors, to his mother who memorialized him across multiple countries, and finally to Emil Merkelbach, an enemy officer, who was inspired to write a glowing, respectful letter in memorial four years after they had fought on the battlefield.
"I hope that the foregoing lines, a memorial to your son, will be received by you living—he was my bravest enemy. Honor to his memory. With respect, Emil Merkelbach"
Patri O'Gan is a project assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History. She recommends reading more about the Bennetts. She has also blogged about the creative use of cars, planes, and trains in the struggle for woman suffrage.