"Venus" the bulldog mascot of the destroyer HMS Vansittart 

Royal Navy official photographer, Tomlin H W (Lt)

Animals

Canine Courage: Britain’s Barking War Heroes

Not all heroes wear capes and many walk on four legs

"Venus" the bulldog mascot of the destroyer HMS Vansittart 

Royal Navy official photographer, Tomlin H W (Lt)

Dogs have played an invaluable role in Britain’s military history.

As courageous as they are loyal, dogs have protected the troops in the trenches from rats, sniffed out explosives, delivered crucial messages and even provided comfort to wounded soldiers on the battlefield while they waited for rescue. 

The Role of Dogs In The First World War 

As women went to work and thousands of men signed up to go to war, great national solidarity and mobilisation marked victory over Germany in the First World War. However, not only men were mobilised, many of their four-legged best friends came too. 

About 20,000 dogs were trained for front-line duty.

Their role in the war was so important that in early 1917, the War Office set up the War Dog School of Instruction in Hampshire. 

Up to 13,000 of the K9 recruits came from dog pounds and the police, the rest were once a beloved pet.

A deeper understanding of the role that dogs played in the First World War came after a collection of old newspapers became available to the ancestry discovery website findmypast.co.uk. 

Debra Chatfield, a historian at the website, said: "It's amazing, and heart-wrenching to think of thousands of families saying goodbye to their pet dogs so that they could serve their country at the front line.

"Throughout human history, the bond between man and dogs has been unbreakable, and the role these animals played during the war was of paramount importance."

 

British messenger dogs with their handler. France. Circa 1918 Image: National Library of Scotland

So Exactly What Roles Did The Dogs Play? 

Casualty dogs 

Also known as mercy dogs, they were vital in bringing supplies to soldiers wounded in battle while they waited to be evacuated from the field. For the fatally wounded, these dogs played the role of furry angels, comforting the dying soldiers and guiding them into the world beyond as they took their last breath. 

Sentry dogs

Dogs have been guarding people and their land and property since people had land and property to guard. During the First World War, these skills were vital in guarding the lives of whole battalions. Sentry dogs would patrol the premises of a military camp or base, trained to give a signal in the form of a growl or snarl if they suspected an enemy presence. Often the pricking of the ears would be enough to alert the human guard that something was not right. 

Messenger 

Canine recruits performed many invaluable lifesaving tasks on the frontlines such as hauling machine guns and laying telegraph wires, as well as competing with the pigeons for the spot of the most reliable animal messenger. 

In 1918, a young Airedaile called Jack went with the Sherwood Foresters to France to mark an advanced post. All communication lines with HQ were cut. As the enemy advanced, the whole battalion risked losing their lives if HQ wasn’t informed that reinforcements were urgently needed. It was impossible for a human soldier to escape the bullets.

The battalion’s chance of survival was in Jack’s mighty paws. The brave Airedaile delivered the message to HQ. The Sherwood Foresters were saved. Jack was badly injured, his jaw shattered and leg badly splintered. He died from the bullet wounds shortly after reaching the receiver.

The Dickin Medal was introduced in the Second World War, so Jack’s sacrifice, like many other animals who served in the Great War, has not received recognition like later animals in combat. 

Image by unknown WWII veteran

When The Country Sacrificed Their Best Friends To Fight the Nazis

“Your country needs dogs for defence. Alsatians, Collies and other large breeds. Here is your great opportunity to actively help to win the war – will you loan one?” 

In 1941, a few adverts started appearing in newspapers and magazines asking dog owners to send their best friends to war. 

Spurred by patriotic sentiment, many dog owners believed that their beloved pets were up to the task and volunteered them. Within two weeks, 7,000 dogs were offered to serve their country. Not least because, three years into the war, many were struggling to feed their own families let alone the four-legged members of the household. 

Before being sent to war, the fluffy soldiers had to graduate from The War Dogs Training School.

After successfully completing training, 3,500 dogs had been sent to aid British troops all around the world throughout the Second World War. 

After the war was over, some dogs were deemed too invaluable to be allowed to go back home, they were recruited by the government for further service in Germany. Tragically, most that survived the war were disposed of in 1945, never to see their owners again. Officially around 200 British dogs were killed during the war or reported missing in action. Only 1,500 of the canine veterans came home. Brian was one of the lucky ones. 

A two-year-old Collie Cross, Brian was one of the most famous dogs to be parachuted into France on D-Day. Surviving heavy anti-aircraft fire, Brian received a PDSA Dickin Medal for his bravery as a so-called ‘paradog’. Brian safely returned home and lived happily with his owner until 1955.

The Only Recognised K9 Prisoner Of War

Judy’s incredible life story deserves its own ten season television series. One of the most famous heroes of the Second World War, Judy saved countless Allied lives, serving as a guardian angel and a beacon of hope through the war.  

The pure-bred liver and white-coloured pointer was the only officially recognised Prisoner of War in World War II.  

Judy started her military career as part of the defence fleet in the Far East. The hardworking K9 was a mascot on board the gunboat HMS Gnat in 1936, where she alerted the crew about an on-coming Japanese plane, saving everyone on board.  

Later, Judy was transferred to gunboat HMS Grasshopper which in 1942 was attacked by Japanese aircraft, forcing everyone to abandon ship and try to reach the nearest island in the South China sea. 

Once on land, Judy began to ferociously dig in the sand, her instincts yet again saving everyone's lives by finding the only source of freshwater on the island. 

What followed next was a trek of 200 miles to Padang in an attempt to reach safety. Unfortunately, the survivors of Grasshopper missed the last evacuation ship and were captured as prisoners of war, taken to a camp in Medan where Judy met Leading Aircraftsman Frank Williams. 

 

Judy Image Credit: PDSA

It was love at first bark. From the moment Frank shared his portion of maggot rice with the English Pointer, the pair were inseparable. 

Judy saved Frank and countless other POWs from snakes and scorpions and warned them if guards were nearby. In return, to ensure Judy’s safety, Frank persuaded the camp commandant to register Judy as a POW, ensuring in theory that she had the same rights as the other captured men. 

Despite this, in 1944 the POWs were told that they would be transported to Singapore onboard the SS Van Warwyck and dogs were strictly forbidden on board. 

Frank, of course, wasn't going anywhere without Judy. He trained her to remain perfectly still and silent in a rice sack that he then carried on board. 

The next day, on 26 June 1944, SS Van Warwyck was torpedoed by a British submarine, whose crew were unaware of the POWs onboard. Frank and his ‘pet’ escaped unscathed. 

Judy tirelessly dragged bits of floating wreckage to the soldiers that were less able to swim. For hours, she swam backwards and forwards, doggy paddling drowning men to safety. Judy and Frank were reunited in the jungle POW camp where they remained together until the Japanese surrender in August 1945, and long after that. 

The canine hero returned home with the Allied Troops following Victory Over Japan (VJ Day) which is being remembered this year on 15 August for the 75th anniversary. 

Judy receiving her PDSA Dickin Medal in 1946. Image Credit: PDSA

Are Military Dogs Awarded For Their Service? 

The animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross is called The Dickin Medal. Instituted by Maria Dickin, founder of the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), in 1943. It is the highest form of honour an animal can receive for heroism in military conflict. 

The Bronze medallion bears the words ‘"For Gallantry" and "We Also Serve". 

Thus far, the award has been received by 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and one cat called Simon.