THESE are the dogs of war, who escaped the horrors of the frontline for a blissful retirement with their soldier owners.
More than 18,000 dogs – border collies, terriers, retrievers, lurchers, English sheepdogs and an army of mongrels – served during the First World War as scouts, messengers and searchers for wounded troops. Some died alongside their handlers in the heavy artillery bombardments. Others were killed by German snipers or landmines as they raced across no man’s land trying to deliver military orders, pinned to their collars. But many survived.
And the soldiers who cared for them often could not bear to leave them in the mud of the battlefield when they finally got the call to return home.
Many expressed a desire to bring them back with them but the cost and logistics were prohibitive.
So animal charity Blue Cross, which had set up a number of hospitals in France and Italy to help 50,000 war horses and 18,000 war dogs, stepped in.
In total, more than 16 million animals served in the First World War, ranging from dogs and horses through to cats and even canaries, which were used to detect poisonous gas.
During the war, Blue Cross – originally founded in 1897 as Our Dumb Friends League – had mainly been involved in treating injured and sick horses on front lines.
But it also cared for the dogs. From 1917, the charity took sole responsibility of caring for 18,000 war dogs used by the French army.
And after the war ended, it paid to transport hundreds of dogs back to Britain, where they were vaccinated and quarantined prior to being returned to the veterans they served with.
The appreciation of those servicemen – and an illustration of the unbreakable bond many formed with their four-legged allies – is revealed in a series of letters the charity is making public for the first time.
Here is a selection from those heartfelt messages, and the dates and locations from where they were sent…
“I was waiting for her at the station, and as soon as I could, I opened the box to have a look at her, thinking she would be stiff and cramped after coming so far in the box.
“But as soon as the box opened, she sprang out, and when she smelt me… well, I thought she would have gone mad.
“She could not seem to believe it was true and kept smelling and kissing us all over. I can assure you, ours was a happy house last night.”
“I approached the hamper containing Basil without speaking, and in a few seconds he had scented me. He barked and howled, and made such a
noise that soon a little crowd gathered.
“I just managed to open one corner and Basil scrambled out and jumped on to my shoulder, barking and licking my hands and face. It was a revelation to me, and I shall never forget Basil’s greeting.
“Old times, places and adventures came flooding back to me as I watched Basil, and my heart is full of gratitude to you, and the Blue Cross Fund, for all the kindness shown to me and Basil.”
“Just a line to let you know that Rags arrived safely by the train yesterday.
“My friends have been telling me that she would not remember me after all these months but when she heard my voice on the platform she went almost frantic to get out of the box.”
“Blunt arrived here safely tonight. We went down to the station to meet him.
“Took him out of his box and put his lead on and brought him home.
“Poor dog, he was just beside himself with excitement and is still. He knew his master at once and they’ve had a great old time together.”
“Just a few lines to let you know how pleased I am at the arrival of my dog, and the splendid condition she has arrived home in.
“I might say it is nine months since I left her in France, and when I spoke to her she simply went frantic with joy, and I cannot express how thankful I am to you for your trouble and expense in looking after her.
“After all, this war has been worth winning, knowing that we have people in England who look after Our Dumb Friends while we were doing our bit out there, I shall never forget the Blue Cross and its fund.”
“Thank you so very much for the great trouble you have taken over dear old Cherie. I am very pleased to tell you she has arrived quite safe and Mrs Inkson went to the Central after receiving your wire to meet her when the train arrived, and you ought to have seen the great fuss Cherie made of me when I arrived home from work tonight.”
“I am very grateful to you for the care taken of my best friend, and hope to call at Victoria Street and hand a donation and personally thank the Blue Cross.”
This year, Blue Cross has agreed a partnership with the
War Horse Memorial organisation to promote the Purple Poppy Appeal, with funds being used to help pets across the UK.
Julia McKechnie-Burke, the director of fundraising at Blue Cross, said: “Blue Cross is extremely proud of our rich heritage, which stems from working to save animals in war over 100 years ago. “We are equally as proud of the help we offer today for the thousands of pets who need us in a very different way.
“We are delighted to partner with War Horse Memorial and raise funds from the purple poppy to help the dogs, cats, horses and small animals that come to us daily in need of care.”