Tuesday 12 August 2014

1914: Dogs of War

The famous Punch cartoon of 1914
sums it up perfectly
In recent days, with the 100th anniversary of the opening of World War 1 so fresh in one’s mind, I have been very conscious of what was happening in Belgium during the opening rounds. Germany’s savage onslaught in Western Europe fell first on this geographically small nation when the Belgian Government refused to allow free passage of German armies to attack France.  Belgium’s refusal, and its determination to resist invasion by a vastly more powerful foes, was heroic in the extreme and the nation was to pay a very high price in the years that followed. Belgium’s desperate resistance in 1914 was however to knock the meticulously-calculated German advance schedule off track. It gave French and British troops time to deploy to meet the onslaught after Belgian forces were forced to retreat. Almost all of the country was to be occupied by the Germans, with only a tiny corner in the south-west being held by Belgian forces for the remainder of the war. The German occupation was to be brutal, marked not just by atrocities against civilians, but by massive deportation of forced labour and by removal of industrial plant. Looting of food supplies brought the population to the edge of starvation and, up to 1917, was saved only by American relief supplies organised by future-president Herbert Hoover. The Belgian economy, which in 1914 had been the sixth largest in the world, would never recover its position in decades to come.
Dogs pulling a milk cart in more peaceful times
Mark Antony’s call of Cry "Havoc!" and let slip the dogs of war!” in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar evokes images of ravening hounds straining at the least with bared fangs and bloodshot eyes. In 1914 however the “dogs of war” were to play much humbler but no less heroic roles. This was in Belgium, a country where, like parts of the Netherlands, dogs were in normal everyday use for pulling small carts. 
Two faithful servants
In the days before motor transport, and in a generally level country with few inclines, a dog was a cheap and effective way of transporting small items. A particular advantage was that, unlike horses or oxen, they could be kept easily in towns and, as omnivores, were low-maintenance as regards food. Dogs appear to have been widely used to draw small milk-carts and were popular subjects for postcards sold to tourists in the pre-1914 era.
Postcard showing Belgian infantry on the march
The Belgian Army was also to make use of dogs for transporting light loads, being widely employed by machine-gun teams either for pulling the gun itself, or for moving ammunition and other necessities. Surviving photographs from 1914 show that these dogs went to war and one wonders how many were to survive. A particularly poignant aspect of these photographs is that one gets such a strong sense of trust and loyalty – even pride. These humble canine soldiers look proud of what they could do.
A Vickers medium machine gun drawn by two K9 privates
Belgian troops marching to the front, supported by dog transport

Exhausted dogs have a well-earned rest
One wonders what finally became of them
Some of the saddest photographs from Belgium in 1914 show refugees who have taken to the roads with a few possessions to escape the German advance. A month before these people were leading inoffensive, humble, useful lives, but as war engulfed them they were to leave what they had flee with little more than the clothes on their backs. Many of these people were dependent on their dog carts – often laden with the old and the infirm.
Refugee family - and the dogs are doing their best
Dogs drawing a very heavy load - misery for humans and for beasts
Canine transport in happier times
Man's Best Friend
In all these photographs one is amazed at just how small many of these dogs were. One also has the strong the impression of the dogs’ endless loyalty and patience, “Man’s Best Friend” proving himself in extremity.

And today – a hundred years on from this misery – we are confronted with images of even greater suffering as Christian and Yazidi refugees flee before an unthinkably more savage for than the Germans were in 1914. The best way we can commemorate World War 1 and its sacrifices is to stand by these people in Iraq in their hour of need.

I am indebted to the splendid Sweet Juniper Inspiration website (www.sweetjuniperinspiration.com) for some of the illustrations used above


  1. Herbert Hoover is well remembered for his WW I saying, "Food will win the war!" He was no stranger to war. As an engineer he played a major part in defending the Chinese City 80 miles from Peking where the relief column was organized. Back to WW I, another Boxer Rebellion hero Marine Dan Daly would earn US Marines the nick-name, 'Devil Dogs.' Today this day it's not uncommon for us to address each other as, "You ol' devil Dog!" The US Marines even have a light-hearted veterans group called the Order of the Devil Dogs, organized in packs. At each meeting a member must begin each sentence with, "Woof! Woof!" or put a dollar in a dog-dish. I have been a guest on one occasion, but am already doing as much as I can for veterans. Thus I didn't have time to join this ultimate fun-loving Marine Corps Veterans Group which has its origin in Antoine's WW I Dogs of War.

  2. Herbert Hoover has received a very bad press over the years but he was a great and admirable man.His wife was no less impressive and was quite fearless at the time of the Boxer Rising.

    And the idea of a rgoup of US Marines loudly woofing would intimidate just about anybody!