Remembered at last: animals who served during wartime

A new £1m memorial in London marks the contribution made by the animal kingdom to the United Kingdom. Jonathan Brown looks at some of the stories behind the Park Lane sculpture

They died in their millions, the victims of wars waged by man against his fellow man. In huge numbers, animals were deployed alongside the military in the theatres of conflict, in the deserts, the seas and the sky. They carried troops, ferried supplies and even secrets. On the home front, dogs rescued victims trapped in the rubble of bombed buildings. On the front line, even the humble glow-worm was pressed into action, providing light for the men in the trenches of the Somme to read.

They died in their millions, the victims of wars waged by man against his fellow man. In huge numbers, animals were deployed alongside the military in the theatres of conflict, in the deserts, the seas and the sky. They carried troops, ferried supplies and even secrets. On the home front, dogs rescued victims trapped in the rubble of bombed buildings. On the front line, even the humble glow-worm was pressed into action, providing light for the men in the trenches of the Somme to read.

Yesterday this contribution was acknowledged with a £1m memorial dedicated to the animals which served in war. It is the first such permanent tribute to the plethora of species that served; on it are the profiles of horses, dogs, monkeys, bears, pigeons, mules, and the glow-worm.

The sculpture at Brook Gate, Park Lane, in central London, was designed by David Backhouse. It bears bronze sculptures of two mules carrying battle equipment, a stallion and a dog, beside a curved Portland stone wall.

Its inscription reads: "Animals In War. This monument is dedicated to all the animals that served and died alongside British and Allied forces in wars and campaigns throughout time. They had no choice". The sheer numbers of animals to have died is staggering. Some eight million horses were killed by explosions, bullets, disease, exposure or starvation between 1914 and 1918.

Yesterday, old soldiers came to remember the role played by animals in conflicts. Colonel John Andrews, an 80-year-old 14th Army veteran, paid tribute to the mules that supplied him in the jungle in Burma in 1944. "My life was saved by the mules. The only way we could get the guns up to us was using them. There was no way we could do anything else." Also present was the British Army dog Buster and his handler, credited with breaking a resistance cell in Safwan, Iraq, in 2003. The springer spaniel became the 60th animal to be awarded the Dickin Medal, given by the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals since 1943, and often referred to as the Victoria Cross for animals.

Campaigners have long fought for a British memorial to the animals killed in war. Among them is the author Jilly Cooper, whose book Animals in War , tells their stories.

Yesterday as a flock of racing pigeons was released as part of the ceremony, she said: "They carried our food and our weapons and they were phenomenal. In the Blitz, dogs used to wake up their owners and take them to the shelters when they heard the sirens, and in the First World War horses would neigh when they heard enemy fire but would do nothing when they heard their own fighters going overhead. It's their sixth sense and it's amazing."

Two animal lovers left a written note on a wreath by the memorial. It said: "You have smelt our fear. You have seen our bloodshed. You have heard our cries. Forgive us dear animals that we have asked you to serve in this way in war."

Rifleman Kahn, Army dog

In the autumn of 1944, the war in Europe was drawing to a close. With much of southern Holland liberated, the Allies turned their attention to the German-occupied island of Walcheren from which access to the harbour road to Antwerp was controlled.

The attack began on 6 October. On the approach to Walcheren, a boat carrying an alsatian, named Rifleman Kahn, and his handler, Corporal Muldoon of the 6th Battalion of the Cameronians, capsized. Cpl Muldoon couldn't swim but his loyal dog made his way through the water to help him. Ignoring shellfire and oil slicks, Kahn steered Cpl Muldoon to safety, the soldier clinging to the dog's coat. The island was liberated on 8 November.

Rifleman Kahn, who was donated to the military by the Railton family from Surrey, was one of thousands of dogs enlisted during the war. They underwent special training before being assigned to units. Kahn was returned to the Railtons but the bond he had formed with his military handler proved too strong and the pair were reunited. They were later awarded the freedom of Lanarkshire and the Dickin Medal.

Mary of Exeter, Carrier pigeon

Charlie Brewer, a shoemaker in Exeter, Devon, had a pigeon loft at his home. It provided an unlikely operations centre, in one of the most celebrated contributions by animals to the British war effort between 1939 and 1945. Mr Brewer's pigeon, Mary, joined the National Pigeon Service in 1940. The birds served a number of purposes in the war. Two accompanied each RAF flight as it left England, to help locate downed airmen. Thousands were parachuted into occupied France to help the Resistance send back messages to Britain. They were also deployed to the Middle East to take part in "special operations". Mary flew many missions. She was wounded three times and patched up with 22 stitches. Part of her wing was shot off and she had three pellets surgically removed from her body. Despite the gunfire and deployment of German hawks to bring down messenger pigeons, she continued to serve and was awarded the Dickin Medal in November 1945. She died in 1950 and was buried in a graveyard for military serving animals in Chingford, east London. The pigeon service was wound up in 1950.

Buster, Army dog

There were tense times for British troops around the time of the fall of Baghdad as they battled to control an insurgency on the southern Iraqi town of Safwan in April 2003. Local people were fearful of Fedayeen fighters and Baath party separatists who were armed and posing a severe danger to soldiers and civilians. A sweep of five buildings by 100 British soldiers failed to uncover anything, but then Buster, a five-year-old springer spaniel, was called in. With his handler, Sergeant Danny Morgan of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, he began searching for hidden munitions. In one house, he discovered a pistol and ammunition but then sniffed something near a wardrobe. Close by, in a wall cavity, were AK-47 rifles, 400 rounds of ammunition, six grenades - all primed - and two kilograms of cocaine and heroin. Several Iraqis were detained. The discovery was credited, in effect, with ending the southern insurgency and allowing British troops to replace their steel helmets with berets. Military chiefs believe Buster achieved something humans could not. One of more than 20 dogs to serve in the Gulf, he became the 60th animal to be awarded the Dickin Medal for heroism.

Simon, Ship's cat

Immortalised in the naval war movie The Yangtse Incident, Simon is the only cat to win the Dickin Medal. The frigate HMS Amethyst was on a mission on the Yangtze in April 1949, supplying the British embassy in Nanking, when Mao Zedong's fighters opened fire, forcing the ship to anchor. The Amethyst fell under Communist control for 100 days. Simon was badly injured, suffering burns and a punctured lung, but he miraculously recovered to become a rallying point for the men. Simon also kept the ship's rat population under control, preventing disease spreading. He died three weeks after arriving home.

The Camel Corps, King's African Rifles

Camels have a long tradition in the military and became a vital, if at times belligerent, means of supplying British troops during the days of empire. Though they were often difficult to control and were notoriously fussy about their food and water, they remained calm under shelling and were even tolerant of having cannon fired from their back.

The Imperial Camel Corps saw action in the Middle East from 1915, and its main base was at Abbassia near Cairo. General Edmund Allenby assembled what is commonly regarded as the greatest camel force. At the Battle of Beersheba, the Allenby secured a victory that led to the capture of Jerusalem and with it the conquest of Palestine. Faced with a menacing Turkish desert force he deployed a caravan said to be 40 miles long to supply troops in the field. Most of the camel battalions were disbanded in 1918, although the 2nd Battalion remained active until May 1919.

Camels were also deployed during the Second World War, where they carried supplies in the Horn of Africa.

The Somaliland Camel Corps staved off an attack of 26 Italian battalions using heavy artillery and tanks until reinforcements arrived.

Olga, Regal and Upstart, Metropolitan Police horses

The Blitz was the darkest period for Londoners as Hitler sought to pound the civilian population into submission with night after night of heavy bombing.

Metropolitan police horses were removed from London to the countryside, but were soon returned to the streets of the capital where they became popular symbols of continuity in the face of the incessant war from the sky.

Three horses received the Dickin Medal on behalf of the 186 equines of the Mounted Branch of the Met.

Olga, a mare, was on duty in Tooting, south London, when a German flying bomb destroyed houses near by. As the debris came crashing down she was unfazed. She remained on duty, helping officers restore order and assisting in the search for people buried in the rubble.

In the north London suburb of Muswell Hill, the second police horse, Regal, faced fire. A cluster of incendiary bombs fell close to his stable but Regal remained calm and was led to safety. Three years later the stallion's stable was hit again by a flying bomb.

The third horse, Upstart, was on duty in Bethnal Green, east London when a flying bomb exploded bringing debris crashing around horse and rider. He kept calm, a feat attributed to the fact that he was stabled at Hyde Park near anti-aircraft batteries, and was unafraid of loud noises.

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