The Dogs of War — A Short History of Canines in Combat

A British Tommy and his dog during the First World War. (Image source: Imperial War Museums)

“Archeologists suspect that humans have been using dogs in warfare since the animals were first domesticated more than 15,000 years ago.”

A NEW MONUMENT commemorating the sacrifices of some very special warriors will be dedicated in California in the New Year. The memorial won’t honour soldiers, sailors, fliers or even the Coast Guard however. Instead it will pay tribute to the tens of thousands of dogs that have served the United States military since World War Two.

According to a recent article in the Kansas newspaper The Wichita Eagle, the nine-foot tall bronze and granite statue will be officially dubbed the U.S. Military Working Dog Teams National Monument. Surprisingly, this isn’t the first memorial commemorating America’s ‘dogs of war’. Already markers to patriotic pooches adorn such places as March Air Force Base in Los Angeles; Bristol, Pennsylvania, the U.S. naval base on Guam and Fort Benning Georgia. The difference is that this latest tribute will be the first-ever national monument devoted to dogs.

An Ancient war dog in battle. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

Dogs at War – No New Trick

Despite this upcoming recognition of canine contributions to the battlefield, archeologists suspect that humans have been using dogs in warfare since the animals were first domesticated more than 15,000 years ago.

The first actual written record of war dogs comes to use from the ancient Kingdom of Lydia in modern day Turkey. The small empire’s first ruler, Alyattes, reportedly had his soldiers turn packs of dogs loose on Cimmerian troops in a battle sometime around 600 BCE. The Lydian attack dogs were particularly effective against enemy cavalry, according to one contemporary source. [1]

Around the same time Magnesian troops from Anatolia used their war dogs not against cavalry, but in conjunction with their mounted warriors. In a war against the Ephesians, Magnesian riders released their hounds on the enemy phalanxes to soften them up before a cavalry charge. [2]

Centuries later, the Roman army would routinely deploy their own war dogs. The Canis Molossus or Molossian was the legion’s preferred breed of fighting dog. In fact, it was specially bred just for combat.

In the late Middle Ages, Spanish conquistadores in the New World made brutally effective use of fighting dogs as well. Favouring a mixed breed of deerhound and mastif, the Spaniards festooned their canines with padded armour and spiked collars. Tribal warriors of the Americas were terrified of these enormous fighting animals. The Spaniards would typically release the beasts once an enemy formation was just about to break in order to precipitate a total route. The dogs were known to devour any enemy they could sink their teeth into. So feared were Spain’s canine combatants that the conqueror Ponce De Leon reportedly used a brace of them to put down a slave rebellion in Puerto Rico. [3]

Modern War Dogs

Military dogs continued to be used right up to the 20th Century. In fact, during the First World War, canines quickly proved their value in the trenches of the Western Front – not as combatants, but as pack animals, stretcher-bearers and even sentries. Trench dogs were particularly effective in detecting enemy recon teams and raiding parties in No Man’s Land, especially after dark. Dogs also served as messengers on the front lines. The muddy and crater pocked battlescapes of  Flanders were often impassible to human runners; dogs had a far easier time navigating the terrain. And at a fraction of the size of a human being, the animals were hard targets for snipers to hit. Knowing their usefulness, the British army established a dog training centre in Scotland to prepare messenger carriers for the trenches. [4] And it wasn’t just the British who relied on dogs — Germany reportedly used more than 30,000 of them during the war; while the French sent 20,000 to the front. [5]

Dogs returned to action during the next global conflict and were used in new (and sometimes cruel) ways. For example, during the opening weeks of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Russian troops used dogs to destroy enemy tanks. Dog handlers with the Red Army spent weeks conditioning their animals to dart under German Panzers when released onto the battlefield. The dogs were equipped with mines that would be magnetically detonated when the charges came in contact with panzers’ steel hulls. The explosion would knock out the tank, but kill the dog in the process. Innovate yes, but effective? Not really. It turned out that the dogs were just as likely to run beneath Russian tanks or simply leap into friendly trenches amid the noise of battle killing Soviet troops instead of the enemy.

The United States also employed dogs during World War Two, although not as suicide bombers. In fact, soon after entering the war, Washington put out a call to American families to volunteer their pooches to help defeat the Axis. More than 10,000 dogs were inducted into the service. The Americans, like many other armies, used dogs as messengers, sentries and even bomb sniffers. Dogs have continued to serve in these roles right up to the present.

Stubby, the famous mutt than made sergeant. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

Famous War Dogs

Stubby — The most famous dog to come out of the First World War was an American pooch named Stubby. The stray mixed breed mutt attached himself to the 26nd Infantry Division as it prepared to depart for France in 1917. Stubby lived with the doughboys in the lines for 18 months, during which time he became a morale-boosting companion for the soldiers. He was more than just a mascot however. On one occasion, Stubby was credited with alerting his comrades of an impending gas attack and he once reportedly outed a German infiltrator who had crossed into Allied trenches. [6] Stubby was even wounded by German grenade fragments during a raid. The dog was eventually promoted to the rank of sergeant for his contributions and became a national sensation upon his return to the United States. He even met three different presidents. Sgt. Stubby ended his days as the sidekick for the Georgetown Hoyas football team. He died in 1926. His remains are currently part of the Smithsonian Institute.

Chips was a famous army dog of WW2. Disney even made a movie about him in 1990. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

Chips — The most decorated dog of the Second World War, Chips was donated to the U.S. Army by the Wren family of Pleasantville, New York shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The part German Shepherd, Collie and Husky mix served in North Africa and Europe. During the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, Chips stormed an Italian machine gun nest, forcing four of the enemy troops out into the open to be captured. During the brief melee, the animal was wounded in the head and suffered minor burns as well. Later that same day, Chips participated in the capture of another 10 enemy troops. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star for his bravery as well as the Purple Heart, although these were all subsequently revoked due to a military regulation preventing medals from being given to non-humans. [7] He eventually returned home to the Wrens after the war.

Bamse the St. Bernard took care of the sailors on a Norwegian minesweeper. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

Bamse — Of course, not all heroic dogs were American. Bamse was a St. Bernard that became part of the crew of the Norwegian minesweeper Thorodd. When Germany occupied Norway in 1940, the Thorodd and her crew (including Bamse) escaped to Great Britain, where they would continue to fight for the Allies. Bamse became well known to the people of Montrose and Dundee in Scotland, where the Thorodd was stationed for much of the war. The beloved dog would often roam the streets of the seaside towns looking for crew members who were out past curfew. He even knew how to take the bus to the popular watering holes. Bamse supposedly once leapt into the water to save a drowning crewmate and on another occasion disarmed a knife-wielding assailant who was intent on attacking one of the ship’s officers. [8] Bamse died in 1944 of natural causes and was buried with full military honours before a crowd of hundreds of civilian and military mourners. A statue commemorating the famous St. Bernard was erected in Montrose, Scotland in 2006. In 2008, the dog’s life became the subject of a Scottish best seller entitled Sea Dog Bamse.

Cario the dog was involved in the operation that killed bin Laden. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

Cairo – When members of the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team Six stormed Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on the night of May 02, 2011, joining them on the raid was an unlikely companion – a Belgian Malinois dog by the name of Cairo. The SEALs brought the dog along to detect bombs, ferret out concealed enemies and even detect secret doors or passageways in the Al Qaeda safe house. Cairo dropped into the compound with the SEALs and eventually helped his teammates secure the perimeter around the dwelling. After the operation, Cairo was on hand when President Obama met with the SEALs who carried out the operation. [9]


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