War Horse–Western Front Witness–Animals in WW1-Horses in WW1-Dogs in WW1
The National Theatre’s production of ‘War Horse’ is enjoying a long and successful run in London.  Even though horses on the Western Front were generally valued more than men, their lives were often quite short. Around 2 million horses were used on the Western Front providing a ratio of one horse for every three serving soldiers. Casualties amongst horses were high with around 29% being killed each year - despite the rapid expansion of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps (from 360 in 1914 to 28,000 by 1918). The Vets did their best but the most common cause of death was starvation and despite most cargo space being taken up with fodder, ships just could not carry enough. Germany had a pre-war breeding programme to replace losses, but the British army had to look elsewhere and a million horses were imported from the USA.  Horses have more sensitive senses than humans and so the noise of explosions, flashes of guns and smell of blood must have been very traumatic for them.   Britain lost around 480,000 horses during the war and when peace came most surviving animals were sold to slaughterhouses rather than repatriated.

War Horse Runs and Runs - The Reality was Different!


Image:  Pekinese dogs were a great source of comfort to some British soldiers.


Even before the term ‘total war’ was in common use, some dog owners were making a valuable contribution to the war effort.  By combing their pets several times a day, owners of Pekinese dogs helped relieve the suffering of injured soldiers. Many soldiers who were wounded in the shoulder, back or chest or who had suffered blast injuries or burns could not bear to wear regulation pyjamas.  As nights grew longer and temperatures dropped, an alternative source of warmth was required.  Once spun and woven, the hair of Pekinese dogs provided ideal shawls and an army of owners were happy to supply the raw material.  A lot was needed as it took around a quarter of a million hairs to produce one cover!

Dogs at War

Pekinese Dogs in WW1–Western Front Witness–Animals in WW1-Horses in WW1-Dogs in WW1

In January 1915 Captain McHoul of the 2nd London Regiment was delighted to be allocated a beautiful white steed when he arrived in France.  He could look smugly at his fellow officers as they were issued with horses of a more common, boring, brown hue.  However when it was pointed out to him that he would be a conspicuous target, his attitude changed.  He resorted to dye and smothered the beast with permanganate of potash which unfortunately turned it a high-visability yellow.   Whenever McHoul rode his horse, he could be seen from miles away for which he suffered endless jibes.  In desperation he resorted to bleach, but this just made his horse resemble some kind of canary – zebra cross.  With the help of a farrier, a final attempt was made and at last the yellow was gone.  However he was now the only British officer to ride a purple coloured horse!  McHoul survived the war but the chances are that his horse did not. 

McHoul's High Vis Horse

McHoul’s High Vis Horse–Western Front Witness–Animals in WW1-Horses in WW1-Dogs in WW1
The arrival of trench warfare created ideal conditions for rats, and tens of millions are said to have plagued the Western Front.   The abundance of food made these rodents more fertile and one breeding pair could produce up to 900 offspring in a single year.  They made life miserable for soldiers of both sides and as the men slept, the vermin would run over their faces or chew through their tunics to get at hidden food.  One soldier felt something during the night and awoke to find a half dead rat on his chest.  It was trailing its entrails having been injured in a recent bombardment and to the soldier it looked as if it had been turned inside out.  Not only did rats reproduce quickly, they also grew enormously in size. 

The Plague of Rats

Germans Displaying Their Rats–Western Front Witness–Animals in WW1-Horses in WW1-Dogs in WW1
In January 2015, a 100 year old rat was put on display in the Victoria Cross museum at Ashworth Barracks, Doncaster.   The rodent  - the size of a cat  -  was killed on the Western Front during World War 1 and stuffed by a local taxidermist so that it could be kept as a prize exhibit.  Rats up to four feet long were seen to attack and devour pet dogs and some attacked wounded men.  Lieutenant Drummond shared a trench with an enormous rat with ‘ferocious and venomous eyes’ and admitted that whenever it came along the trench he would flatten himself against the side to let it pass.
Stuffed Rat the Size of a Cat–Western Front Witness–Animals in WW1-Horses in WW1-Dogs in WW1
The only time the trenches were free of the rats was after an attack when they would be feasting in No-man’s land.  These corpse rats generally had bald faces, caused by repeated rubbing against bone as they fed. It is said that the parts of the body they favoured were the eyes and the liver and so they would often burrow into a corpse to eat these first.  One soldier approached the body of a friend he thought was dead.  The soldier’s head moved as if he was about to speak but out popped his false teeth followed by a rat!
Mutilated Corpse–Western Front Witness–Animals in WW1-Horses in WW1-Dogs in WW1
The only positive from the use at the front of poison gas was that it helped reduce the rat population. The soldier who photographed this pile of dead rodents reckoned around 600 lay dead in the immediate vicinity.  Some soldiers would kick to death the slowest, fattest rats or beat them with shovels.  One scene in ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ featured a group of German infantrymen standing round in a darkened dug out with spades in their hands.  Some crusts had been placed on the floor and when the snuffling and squeaking reached an appropriate level they shone torches and leathered the rats spraying blood in all directions.  British officers sometimes ate their meals with their revolvers handy and would pick off any rat that offered itself as a target.  However other ranks were not encouraged to shoot the beasts as this wasted ammunition, and increased stress in and injuries to their colleagues.
Estimated 600 Dead Rats–Western Front Witness–Animals in WW1-Horses in WW1-Dogs in WW1