Dogs in WW1


The cover of DEATH OF AN UNSUNG HERO features a British officer with his dog a not uncommon sight in France and Belgium during WW1.  As complexes of trenches spread throughout the Western Front the need for well-trained military dogs grew until by 1918 Britain, France, Italy and Belgium had over twenty thousand dogs at the Front.

Some of these military dogs went on to become quite famous. The actor dog Rin Tin Tin rescued from an abandoned German training kennel by an American soldier at the end of the war starred in twenty-seven movies before his death in 1932. Sergeant Stubby, the official mascot of the 102nd Infantry Regiment (United States), participated in seventeen battles on the Western Front saving his regiment from surprise mustard gas attacks and finding wounded soldiers. He once caught a German soldier by the seat of his pants and held him until American soldiers found them. He also spent an afternoon in the White House being feted as a war hero in 1919.


Stubby, a 9-year-old veteran of the canine species.

Many different breeds saw active duty but purebreds did not have an advantage over mixed breeds. It was all about character: intelligence, a desire to please and a strong response to training mattered far more than breed conformation. Dogs of medium build, grayish or black in color with good eyesight and a keen sense of smell were the most desirable. But a “steady temperament and a stalwart disposition” came first!



Apart from the obvious role of sentry duty, dogs performed many different functions and were often more reliable and dedicated in their roles than their human counterparts. They were used to haul supplies and small armaments,  were easier and less expensive to feed than horses and were often far more dependable in the face of heavy artillery fire.



Scout dogs were trained to patrol the terrain ahead with their handlers to detect the presence of the enemy. A quiet, disciplined nature was important so breeds used for bird hunting were useful because they could detect the enemy by scent up to four hundred yards away and were highly efficient at avoiding detection. They alerted their handlers by stiffening their bodies, pricking their ears forward,  and exhibiting clear ‘pointing’ signals.


Casualty or ‘Mercy’ dogs performed a noble role in war. Originally trained in the late 1800’s by the Germans for rescue work, they were later utilized across Europe. Known as ‘Sanitatshunde’ these dogs were trained to find the wounded and dying on battlefields and were equipped with saddle bags of medical supplies so that injured soldiers could tend to their wounds. Mercy dogs would stay with a mortally wounded man providing companionship and comfort until he was found by the Red Cross.



The complexities of trench warfare meant that communication was always a problem. Field communication systems were crude and unreliable and the often flooded, muddy ground difficult to negotiate. A trained dog was faster than a human runner, presented less of a target to a sniper and could travel over any terrain.

The most profoundly moving story I came across in all the many accounts of military dogs  featured a recruit from a dog training school in Scotland. He traveled over four thousand yards across rain filled craters, and the through the thick deep mud of the Western Front with message to the brigade’s headquarters in less than sixty minutes. He was shot twice and died of his wounds after he had successfully completed his mission. All other methods of communicating with headquarters had failed – but this remarkable animal made it through.

Lieutenant Colonel E.H. Richardson, commanding officers of the War Dog School of Instruction, was quoted in the Aberdeen Evening Express in 1918 as saying: “The skill, courage and tenacity of these dogs is amazing. During heavy barrages, when all other communications have been cut, our messenger dogs have made their way, and in many cases have brought messages of vital importance.”

For men trapped in the horrors of trench warfare, the companionship of a dog was a psychological comfort that took them away, if only for a short time, from the horrors they lived through. Trenches, inhabited for months on end,  attracted hordes of rats which made their non-combatant hours even more wretched. One dedicated terrier was so adept at ratting that he eliminated dozens in one fifteen minute rat hunt in September 1916.