One feature of World War 1 that the Lisselton soldiers would have been familiar with was the use of animals. Both sides used animals and birds in the war effort. Indeed the supply of horses was one of the first steps America took to get involved in the war, long before formally becoming an ally.Approximately nine million people died during the war, but it is estimated that over eight million horses, mules and donkeys died in the war on both sides.The early days of the campaigns saw the old fashioned cavalry charges, as was the case at the Battle of Mons in August 1914. But as trench warfare became the norm, and activity went below ground and slowed up, horses and mules were used for transport. By the time the battle of the Somme was fought in 1916, horses were so important for moving material that one horse, “Jimmy the Horse”, was promoted to sergeant after he had been killed in action!
The demotion to carrier status from cavalry status was not popular among the soldiers who had prided themselves as elite horsemen. Having to dismount and dig trenches was demoralising and added to the misery of the war, which already included sleep deprivation and loneliness. The humble donkey made his contribution too. In Gallipoli, where James Carr of Kilgarvan and PatrickWalsh of Tullamore lost their lives, and where Michael Enright of Dromerin served and was wounded, “Duffy the Donkey” became a hero when he was used to transport wounded soldiers from the bloody battlefield. As the allies withdrew from Gallipoli, five hundred mules were killed as they could not be transported quickly enough and would not be left behind alive for the benefit of the Turks. Similarly, Canadian horses were sold off for meat in France after the war because of the difficulty of shipping them back home.
Pigeons were used to carry messages during the war, and stories abound about their effectiveness. Their speed was said to be up to sixty miles an hour. German snipers were ordered to shoot these pigeons out of the sky. It is related that one such bird was wounded in the air with an important message from one trench to another but arrived alive and was responsible for saving soldiers’ lives. Falcons were later sent into action to obstruct the enemy pigeons.
Cats were also used during the war to detect gas in the trenches but also to help to distress the troops, while dogs were trained to carry messages. Some dogs were sent out with explosives attached into the enemy lines. Dogs also were promoted to officer status after deeds of valour, as was the case of a Canadian dog which held a higher rank than his owner!
Perhaps the most amazing use of animals was the use of glow-worms. The tiny beings were gathered in bottles and were utilised to light up the dark trenches in the absence of other sources of light. Books and letters could be read and maps deciphered with the help of these worms.
Towards the end of the war in 1918, when the Germans were retreating and the Allies could leave their trenches, the cavalry regained their old status in some areas and horses galloped again in the traditional charge. Success was not still guaranteed, for example one hundred horses were killed in Clateau-Cambresis (check spelling) just as the war was ending.
The role of animals to World War 1 was not recognised until quite recently when a monument was erected in London to mark their contribution. The film and play “Warhorse” has helped also to highlight the importance of animals in the four years of the war that did not end all wars.