They’d already waved goodbye to husbands, brothers and sons. But as the war with Germany stalled in the blood, mud and chaos of the battlefield, families on the Home Front were asked to make one further sacrifice- their pet Airedales, collies and retrievers.
Thousands of family dogs were pressed into action, joining those that had been rounded up off the streets or conscripted from dogs homes. One little girl wrote: “We have let Daddy go to fight the Kaiser and now we are sending Jack to do his bit.” And a woman offered this send-off: “I have given my husband and my sons and now that he too is required, I give my dog.”
Adam Henson celebrates the heroism of the canine cavalry in a special remembrance episode of Countryfile. He admits he was deeply moved by some of the family letters he read. “It brought a real lump to my throat. In many cases I’m sure the dogs were a major source of comfort for the families who had them. And to see them led away not knowing whether they would return must have been quite hard. But I think everyone did whatever they could to support the war effort.”
Some of the dogs that were recruited were deployed in battlefield positions to listen out for German advances – they were trained not to bark but to use a low growl – while others ran messages between the trenches and military headquarters. To start with, though, the British Army was playing catch-up. The Germans had already deployed hundreds of dogs, ironically many of them sourced from the UK. “They sent scouts over to buy the intelligent collies they didn’t have in Germany,” says Henson. “They were a step ahead of us.”
But by 1916, training at the War Dog School in Shoeburyness in Essex was in full swing. Henson says many of the dogs that were sent to the school failed to make the grade – and many of those that did died on the battlefield. “There would have been a number of dogs who weren’t up to it. Only the bravest, toughest dogs could be used. A lot would be too timid and terrified of the banging. And, sadly, a lot of them would have been blown up or shot.”
Dog-lover Henson acknowledges his admiration for them. “A dog has got an incredible sense of loyalty and smell. They are able to trace foot- steps for miles. So if you walked them from HQ to the front line, they would find their way back again. They were getting shot at, crossing crater holes full of water – the landscape would be changing all the time. It’s difficult to imagine how they did it. They just showed amazing resilience and intelligence.”
Countryfile is on this evening (Sunday 9th November) at 6:30pm on BBC1