The Working Dogs of World War One
The working dogs of World War One played a surprisingly important role alongside army troops of various nations. The National World War One Museum and Memorial have photographs, movies, posters, postcards, and more historical items documenting this elusive yet fascinating part of the war(1).
Dogs shuttled messages, hauled machine guns and supply carts, and provided companionship of course. More than 50,000 military dogs served in World War I.
Dogs proved just how valuable they can be on the battlefield and beyond. Here is how the working dogs of world war one differed from what military dogs had done before.
What jobs did dogs have in World War I?
Depending on their intelligence, size, and training, the military dogs of World War I were positioned in a variety of roles. Generally, the roles fell into the category of sentry dogs, scout dogs, casualty dogs, explosive dogs, ratters, and mascot dogs(2).
The sentry dogs of World War I patrolled using a short leash and a firm hand. They were trained to accompany a specific guard and were taught to give a warning signal such as a growl, bark, or snarl to indicate when an unknown or suspect presence was near.
Dobermans have traditionally been used as sentry dogs in World War I and are still widely used today as guard dogs.
The scout dogs of World War I were highly trained and had to be very disciplined and quiet. Their role was to work alongside soldiers on foot patrolling the terrain ahead of them.
These dogs were very useful to the military since they could detect enemy scent up to 1,000 yards away, sooner than any man could. Instead.
Scout dogs wouldn’t bark as that would draw unwanted attention to the squad, they instead would stiffen raise their hackles and point their tails, which indicated that the enemy was encroaching upon their terrain. Scout dogs were widely used since they were highly efficient in avoiding the detection of the squad.
The Casualty or “Mercy” dogs were vital in World War I. Originally trained in the late 1800s by the Germans, they were later used across Europe.
Known as “Sanitatshunde” in Germany, these dogs were equipped with medical supplies to aid the wounded. The dogs would find wounded soldiers and they would take the needed supplies to tend to themselves.
The more gravely wounded soldiers would seek the company of Mercy dogs to wait with them whilst they died.
Many dogs were used in World War I as messengers and proved to be as reliable as soldiers in the dangerous job of running messages. The complexities of trench warfare meant that communication was always a problem.
Field communication systems were crude in World War I, and thus there was always the real possibility that vital messages from the front would never get back to headquarters or vice versa.
Human runners were potentially large targets and weighed down by uniforms or supplies, and thus there was always a high chance that they wouldn’t get through.
In the heat of battle, there was even less of a chance of a runner getting through as the enemy’s artillery was likely to be pounding constantly in front or behind the runner.
Vehicles were also problematic since they could breakdown, also, the roads would often be reduced to a mushy pulp due to battles, and thus, impossible to travel upon(3).
For men trapped in the horrors of trench warfare, a dog in the trenches ( usually a messenger dog) was a psychological comfort that took away, if only for a short time, the horrors they lived through.
It is said that Adolf Hitler kept a dog with him in the German trenches. For many soldiers on any of the sides that fought in the trenches, a dog must have reminded them of home comforts.
Who was the first war dog?
Stubby is the most decorated war dog of WWI, and the only dog to be nominated for rank and then promoted to sergeant through combat. This brave dog is now buried in the Smithsonian Institution (1916 – March 16, 1926)(4).
Stubby was the official mascot of the 102nd Infantry Regiment ( US ) and was assigned to the 26th Yankee Division in WWI. He served for 18 months and participated in 17 battles on the Western Front.
In his first battles, Stubby was injured by mustard gas, yet he recovered and returned with a specially designed gas mask to protect him.
He learned to warn his unit of poison gas attacks, locate wounded soldiers and became very adept at alerting his unit of incoming artillery shells.
Stubby was also solely responsible for capturing a German spy, after which he was injured again and at the end of the war, he was smuggled home by his owner. His actions are well-documented in contemporary American newspapers.
Lifesaving ambulance dogs
Red Cross dogs or “mercy dogs” performed one of the most dangerous tasks on the battlefield: finding and assisting the wounded in the no-man’s land between the trenches.
These ambulance dogs carried medical packs that men could use to treat themselves if they were able. Dogs would carry a wounded soldier’s cap back to the medics and then bring the medics to him.
Some canines even sat with the dying to comfort them. Sadly, many medics and their dogs were killed regularly in the line of duty. The casualty rate among dogs was so high that many units stopped using them.
Ambulance dogs were highly effective on the Eastern Front. During the Russian retreat, medical dogs reportedly saved thousands of German lives.