Animals in war

There have always been wars. And animals that were abused for it, because war would be unthinkable without the massive use of animals - be it for transport and communication, be it as food or as emotional support for the soldiers. Think of the beasts of burden, or chariots with horses, which were often covered in leather so that they could not be killed immediately. Because of their special abilities, animals were trained in wars to be used as messengers, spies, guards, medics, mine-sweeping dogs or living bombs. Mules, donkeys, oxen and dogs were also used for transport purposes, and camels were also used on the fronts in the Middle East. Dogs were the most diversely used species: their highly developed senses were used as guard and signaling dogs, they were used to track down injured people or hidden enemies, but they were also used in teams as draft animals and, last but not least, as mascots. In addition to thousands of dogs, numerous carrier pigeons were used to transmit information to points that were difficult to reach.


The role of the animal as a slaughter animal in the literal sense was just as important in the war effort: in addition to the species common in times of peace, everything that was edible ended up in the soldiers' soup bowls in times of need in the hinterland as well as at the front.


However, the animals died not only because of the acts of war themselves - but also because of the side effects of the war: the massing of animals at certain points and the often bad conditions in which they were kept led to increased illnesses. In horses, it was mainly so-called "Rotz" (glander), a disease of the upper respiratory tract, lungs and skin, which was almost always fatal if left untreated, and in dogs it was mange. Although there were separate treatment facilities (hospitals) for horses and dogs, in which some lucky specimens received relief, the majority of them died in agony.

Military horses

Horse carcasses in the First World War
Horse carcasses in the First World War

Horses have always had to fight war for humans: the most common and important farm animal in all theaters of war was the horse. The famous war horse of the knights, clad in leather and iron and often the target of the lance, because if the horse fell, the knight also fell. In Arabia, the horse is the most important part of the fighting equipment.


Mounted army units such as the cavalry were important parts of the army from ancient times to the late modern period. They could avoid close combat and instead fire arrows at enemy troops from a distance. Slower opponents often had no chance. The famous stud farm in Trakehnen (East-Prussia) was so important because the horses bred there played an important role as cavalry horses in times of war.


According to estimates, over 18 million horses were used by all participating powers in the First World War: as cavalry horses, as pack and draft animals and ultimately as meat suppliers. 8 million of them also died in the First World War. The high demand for horses was not least due to the increase in so-called “heavy weapons” (guns, etc.). It was not uncommon to see teams of more than 12 horses struggling with their heavy loads to reach the artillery positions through paths that were soggy with rain and torn up by wheels and grenades. At the height of fighting on the Western Front in the summer of 1918, the life expectancy of an artillery horse was just 10 days! 

War horse world WW1 WW2
During the world wars, war horses fell mainly on the connecting lines (2)

The gas war itself did not spare the lives of the horses, but they were also helpless when attacked by enemy weapons, especially aircraft: horses do not take cover. That's why it was considered more effective among aviators to attack horse convoys than marching columns. The horses were easier to hit and harder to replace than soldiers.


The German Wehrmacht used 2.8 million horses in the Second World War alone. Around 60 percent of them died, a much higher blood toll than the soldiers had to pay. The expansion of the horse population during the Second World War was made necessary by the even larger number of heavy weapons. At the start of World War II, each division had twice as many horses as a division in World War I. Among the non-motorized troops, there was one horse for every seven soldiers in the First World War and four soldiers in the Second World War. Back then, even the smallest vehicles could often only be moved by a minimum of four horses. While the war in the West was largely fought without horses, in the East one could not do without horses. In the same context in which the Eastern European no-man's land increased, its spaces became more unmanageable and the partisan attacks increased, a weapons category that had already been declared dead returned to the war: In 1942, a German cavalry was positioned again under Colonel Freiherr von Boeselager. 

War Horse Spielberg
The movie "War Horse" tells the story of the horses in WW1

The war horse was a weapon that should not be underestimated. During the Second World War, 26,000 horses near Sevastopol and Kherson were shot with machine guns and thrown into the sea so that they would not fall into the hands of the enemy and the enemy could not use them.


Only recently have the achievements and sufferings of war horses been rescued from oblivion, on the one hand through research in the run-up to commemorations of the world wars and on the other hand through literature. Among other things, Michael Mopurgo's 1982 book "War Horse" was made into a film by Steven Spielberg in 2011. The film conveys the reality of war of such a "war horse" incredibly realistically, despite all the Hollywood schmaltz. A forerunner of Mopurgo was Ernst Johannsen, who tells the First World War from the perspective of the veteran mare named Liese. His book is dedicated to "the 9,586,000 horses... that fell victim to the World War".

Dogs on the battlefield

Anti-tank dog armed with a bomb
Anti-tank dog armed with a bomb

Due to their special training ability, no other animal species can be used in such a variety of ways. People have rarely questioned this morally. During the First World War, dogs were used not only as draft and search animals or as guard and medical dogs. They transported important goods to the front lines and delivered important information as reporting dogs. They were often rigged with mines, sent to the battlefield and blown up as living weapons. Because of their good sense of smell, dogs also warned of poison gas, as well as patrol dogs of enemies, and they also guarded prisoners of war. 


Dogs also supported the soldiers in finding and retrieving the dead. If a dog found a wounded man, it would pluck a baggie from its collar and return to its unit with it.

Soldier ans service dog with gas masks
Soldier ans service dog with gas masks

Due to the great need for dogs, many private dogs were confiscated. After the end of the war, the war dogs were, if traceable, returned or sold to their previous owners. Many dog handlers purchased their military dogs themselves and kept them in civilian life. Since poison gas was used for the first time in the First World War, thousands of soldiers went blind as a result, and the need for guide dogs was correspondingly great. Dogs that were no longer suitable for war were often used as guide dogs.


Pigeons as agents 

France had already used carrier pigeons as an animal communication medium during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which a little later made the German army command take notice. At the end of the 19th century, the German army trained military carrier pigeons in 15 carrier pigeon stations. Kaiser Wilhelm II was patron of the "Verband Deutscher Brieftauben-Liebhaber-Vereine" (Association of German Carrier Pigeon Enthusiasts Associations). During the First World War, over 120,000 pigeons were used by the German Reich alone. They were even deployed from balloons and ships and equipped with automatically triggering cameras.

Dog guards his sleeping master
Dog guards his sleeping master

Fireflies as a light source  

British soldiers had a bright idea during the First World War: They collected fireflies in glass jars and used the insects' natural bioluminescence as a light source. The soft lighting was much less visible than that of candles or electricity. This meant that strategic information or field mail could be read even in dark places such as trenches without attracting attention.


Canaries as gas detectors 

Canaries were also kept in trenches and underground passages. Not to distract the soldiers, but as animal poison gas detectors. If they lay dead on the floor of the cage, the soldiers knew they were not allowed to enter the area.

A rifleman with the regimental cat in a trench in Cambrin, France, February 6, 1918
A rifleman with the regimental cat in a trench in Cambrin, France, February 6, 1918

Cats in the trenches

Thousands of cats were sent into the trenches during World War I to keep rodent numbers down and act as early warning detectors for mustard gas. Many gave the troop great comfort as companions and mascots. A total of 500,000 cats were sent to the front during the First World War, although we will never know how many of them survived.


Dolphins as army divers

There was something of an arms race in the Cold War, and this included the training of military dolphins. The Americans are said to have owned up to 140 dolphins and the Russians around 120.

A carrier pigeon is sent out from a tank
A carrier pigeon is sent out from a tank

Since dolphins mainly orientate themselves acoustically - they see with their ears and therefore have outstanding tracking abilities underwater - their senses were used for military purposes. The intelligent marine mammals were used to carry out patrol services and to detect enemy combat divers or sea mines. However, there are also many myths and legends surrounding dolphins in combat operations: the stories that dolphins can attack and kill enemy combat divers or attach mines to enemy boats are probably more like rumors.


War elephants

With their tusks and sheer overwhelming strength, elephants were considered a feared weapon, especially in ancient times. They were used on the Indian subcontinent until the 18th century. In addition to the easily trained Indian elephant, the North African elephant often had to go to war - a relatively small representative of the species that has long been extinct. Even the almost 40 Carthaginian war elephants with which Hannibal fought during the Second Punic War in 218 BC. When they crossed the Alps in the 1st century BC, they were probably North African elephants.

Zoo animals

Elephant body death bomb WW
Elephant carcasses in the Berlin Zoo after a bomb attack in 1943 [1]

It wasn't just the animals directly involved in the war that had to endure terrible fates: just as many animals were indirectly hit hard by the war. The horrific bombing raids on Dresden in 1945 destroyed 95 percent of the Dresden Zoo and its residents with it. A female elephant was even thrown over an enclosure fence by the air pressure of the hellish blasts. Contemporary witnesses vividly remembered the exotic animals running in panic through the burning city of Dresden. And the terrible screams of the wounded animals that went through their bones.


When the fence to the "Great Garden" of the Dresden Zoo burned, the zoo inspector Otto Sailer-Jackson issued a secret order: all predators had to be shot because of the risk to human life. “It broke my heart,” he said later. Seriously injured animals such as a gibbon monkey with its hands torn off were also killed, and elephants, bison and red buffalo were shot. According to legend, only one bear that escaped survived in the surrounding area for months. He is said to have been slaughtered later by Red Army soldiers.


Something similar in Berlin: Of a total of 4,000 animals in the Berlin Zoo, only 91 (!) survived the Second World War. One of these was the hippo bull Knautschke, who was a zoo visitor's favorite for decades after the war.


Wild animals and street animals

We must not forget the countless wild and street animals who wandered around in panic at the main and secondary theaters of war and desperately sought protection from the threatening bangs, bursts and wafting clouds of smoke that shook and polluted their habitats - and put them in unimaginable fear of death. They, too, were robbed of their homeland, their integrity, their security and often enough of their lives.

The Treuchtlingen memorial

Teuchlingen Mahnmal memorial
The Treuchtlingen memorial. The inscription says "In memory of the millions of animals who died in human war"

Why a memorial to the animals killed in war? Because the animals in our wars suffered under the same terrible conditions and horrors as humans - and they died at least as painfully and full of fear. However, animals, especially the dogs and horses, who performed their final military service in the first half of the 20th century, also became the soldiers' companions in fate, brothers and sisters in perdition. The soldier always saw himself in the eye of his dying animal. 


In London's Hyde Park there is a monument to the animals who died in the war, the "Animals in War Memorial". The monument bears two inscriptions. The second inscription reads:  "They had no choice." And that's exactly the point. 


The sculptor and artist Johannes Engelhardt had the idea for the Treuchtlingen (Germany) memorial a few months before his death: For this reason, he made a life-sized horse out of plaster. This horse was cast as a bronze to draw attention to the suffering of all animals in war. Unfortunately, he didn't live to see the bronze casting. His works of art can be found in many war cemeteries, such as the Waldfriedhof (forest cemetery) in Munich or Treuchtlingen. While creating one of these works, it occurred to him that no one thinks about the many animals killed in war. His daughter Barbara Engelhardt, known in the region as a globally active animal rights activist, has now been able to implement his last idea after many years with the help of many people, organizations and companies. Meanwhile, from October 3rd, 2023, the bronze statue of the horse will remind every visitor of the unspeakable suffering that humans have inflicted and continue to inflict on animals.


We're wading in blood. Don't look away!

There is still war going on right now. Animals are also affected by acts of war in Ukraine. They die in the fighting, are injured, abandoned, forgotten, shot. In addition, they are used as war aides or as living weapons of war. If you want to help, help there and give an animal from this war misery a new, safe home - or donate some money!




Your money really helps there and can have a much greater impact than if you waste it to some questionable animal welfare organizations in order to then "rescue" a pseudo-street dog from any alleged death shelter in Romania. 😬


[2] Ulrich Raulff: "Farewell to the horse", p. 129

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