World War One officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on this day one hundred year’s ago – June 28, 1919. It brought conclusion to four years of conflict with the loss of tens of millions of lives – both human and animal.
It followed the Armistice, agreed on November 11, 1918, when both sides stopped fighting while a peace treaty was negotiated. Much is written about the Treaty and the way the map of Europe changed forever. However, today it’s right we reflect on the service and sacrifice that animals made to help secure the peace and democracy we enjoy today.
The Imperial War Museum report that over 16 million animals served in the First World War. They were used for transport, communication and companionship. In 1914, both sides had large cavalry forces. Horse and camel-mounted troops were used in the desert campaigns throughout the war, but on the Western Front, new weapons like the machine gun made cavalry charges increasingly difficult. However, animals remained a crucial part of the war effort. Horses, donkeys, mules and camels carried food, water, ammunition and medical supplies to men at the front, and dogs and pigeons carried messages. Canaries were used to detect poisonous gas, and cats and dogs were trained to hunt rats in the trenches. Animals were not only used for work. Dogs, cats, and more unusual animals including monkeys, bears and lions, were kept as pets and mascots to raise morale and provide comfort amidst the hardships of war.
Article 238 of the Treaty specifically mentions the handing back of animals that had been taken during the war years. History tells us that only mounts that were owned by officers were guaranteed to return to Britain. The fate of the rest of the Army’s horses and mules depended on their age and fitness.The healthiest and youngest animals were brought back to the UK – 25,000 remained in the British army while more than 60,000 were sold to farmers. Horses and mules in the next class down were auctioned off to farmers on the continent for an average of £37. The oldest and most worn out horses were sent to the knacker’s yard for meat and fetched £19 – a necessary move when severe food shortages hit Europe at the end of the war. Further afield, thousands of Australian horses were used by the British Army in India. But the role of horses wasn’t forgotten. Donations from the public to the Blue Cross Fund and other charities meant they could rescue thousands of war horses left to a life of hard labour on the continent. The ‘Old Blacks’ – a team of six horses who survived the whole war – were chosen to pull the carriage of the Unknown Soldier to mark the Armistice in 1920, and we know of others like Blackie in Halewood, Liverpool and Songster in Loughborough who went on to have long and productive lives.