Guest blogger Natasha Kleanthous is website editor at The Blue Cross animal charity. She reveals more about the role of animals in the First World War.
It wasn’t just men who answered the call in 1914 to leave behind the peaceful, rural life they’d always known and enter the unknown to fight for their country.
Hundreds of thousands of animals made the journey across the English Channel to join the horrific conditions among the fighting in the trenches.
Horses were absolutely vital to an army’s success, both for the cavalry and to carry weapons and pull vehicles, and dogs also had an important role as lookouts, messengers and carriers of ammunitions and first aid packs. Some were even trained to lead men who had been blinded in battle, or pull injured soldiers through the trenches on sleds.
Men and animals alike fell prey to wounds and disease in the trenches of France. Under the constant fear of sniper fire or enemy shells, horses also had to cope with mange, ill-fitting shoes and a lack of clean food and water.
The Red Cross quickly sprang into action to help human victims of war but it soon became clear there was a desperate need to help animals too.
That’s when a charity called Our Dumb Friends League (ODFL) offered its help. ODFL was established in 1897 and had set up a Blue Cross Fund during the Balkan War in 1912 to help horses fighting on the front line.
It quickly reopened the fund, offering its help to the British Army and sending horse ambulances and veterinary chests marked with a blue cross to over 3,500 British units when supplies were short and hard to come by.
One ambulance costing £2,000 was sent as far afield as Egypt, after being inspected by the King at Buckingham Palace.
The bravery and selflessness of these animals in fighting alongside the men of their country captured the heart of the nation and the generosity of the British public helped to fund the work of ODFL.
One commanding officer wrote to the charity in December 1915: “I heartily thank you for the liberal supplies of veterinary stores received this morning, every article was in splendid condition… Believe me your work is fully appreciated by every one who has charge of the poor dumb animals doing their part in this great war.”
As the war waged on, ODFL realised that while the British Army was relatively well-equipped with sufficient knowledge and supplies to help its horses, our European allies weren’t.
The charity extended its help to the French and Italian armies, providing animal hospitals with English veterinary surgeons to treat injured horses and other animals on the battlefields. Over 50,000 horses were treated for mange in France alone.
And when the Americans joined the war effort, veterinary supplies were sent to the US Veterinary Corps. In fact, during the four and a half years of war, the Blue Cross Fund established its work in one form or another in almost every zone of its operations.
It’s estimated that more than 6 million horses and mules were involved in the First World War and almost half died of disease or were killed in conflict.
But, in the chaos and aftermath of World War One, surviving horses still needed help as thousands were sold cheaply abroad. Years later, it emerged that many of these old war heroes had become victims of overwork, cruelty and starvation overseas. When ODFL found out, the charity launched an appeal to buy back as many as possible, and successfully rescued 4,000 from Belgium in the 1930s.
In the 1950s ODFL changed its name to The Blue Cross in memory of the fund that helped so many animals during wartime.
Today, the charity continues to help animals when they need it most, such as those who are injured, abandoned or made homeless. The charity cares for thousands of pets and horses in the UK every year, funded entirely by public donations.
The bond between man and horse inspired the book War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo, and DreamWorks Pictures will be releasing the film adaptation directed by Steven Speilberg in January 2012. It tells the story of a horse who is sold to the British Army and his teenage owner Albert, who signs up so he can go to France and track down his beloved friend.
Now, The Blue Cross is appealing for real life stories showing the bond between animals and people in war.
Ruth Turner recently contacted the charity after finding an old Blue Cross Drivers and Gunners handbook in some belongings left by her grandfather.
Like Albert, George Turner joined the army in 1914 when he was underage at 16. With limited knowledge of horse care and management, he treasured the Blue Cross handbook and carried it with him throughout the war.
George survived some of the conflict’s bloodiest battles, including the horrors of the Somme, but one act of bravery won him a Military Medal.
During an attack by the Germans he was blown off his horse and, after pulling himself up, realised one of his other horses was badly injured by shrapnel.
He took the ammunition from the injured animal, loaded some onto his horse and the rest on his own back and led both animals, under heavy fire, into a wooded copse in the middle of the field.
He tied the injured horse up, determined to return, while continuing on to the lines to deliver the ammunition.
When he reached his comrades, George asked an officer to accompany him back to the copse to shoot the badly wounded horse, to put it out of its misery.
The officer got halfway across the field and had to turn back due to the heavy shelling, but George pushed bravely on, reaching the copse and risking his own life to lead the injured horse back to the trenches so his officer could humanely end its suffering.
Ruth Turner, says: “This act of courage shows how deep the bond was between my grandfather and his horses. Just three men survived the shelling that day but, despite great danger to himself, he refused to leave his horse to die a painful, lonely death.
“All this was watched by a French soldier through his binoculars, who reported it to my grandfather’s commanding officer. As a result he received the military medal for his bravery.”
Do you have any stories about the role of your ancestors in helping animals during the war? If so, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about The Blue Cross and its work, or to make a donation, visit www.bluecross.org.uk
About Brian Gallagher
Brian is the International Social Media Specialist for Ancestry, working closely with our United Kingdom, Sweden, German and Australian teams.