In a recent article, we dove into the incredible (and surprisingly modern) history of war elephants, which inspired me to research war animals in general. As you’d imagine, the history of animals being involved in warfare goes back a long way — enough to fill an entire book. So, for the purposes of brevity, let’s stick to the modern uses for animals in warfare today.
By modern, I mean roughly from World War I to the Global War on Terror. Modern is relative, of course, but machine guns, submarines, and tanks feel fairly modern compared to the days of the Phalanx, spears, and knights. So, these feel like appropriate left and right lateral limits to me.
Some war animals are completely predictable… but others might surprise you.
Man’s best friend has long accompanied him to war, and dogs have served in a wide variety of roles throughout history. In the World Wars, dogs carried messages, they carried wires for radios, and were even sent into No Man’s Land with medical gear for injured soldiers. I’d imagine these good boys brought some small degree of comfort to men wounded in the field as well, giving these dogs a value that’s tough to quantify in hindsight.
In the Global War On Terror, some dogs were trained to find and detect explosives. We often took one of our company’s pups on patrol to find and detect IEDs from a decent distance.
Others, of course, were trained to accompany warfighters during direct action operations. Famously, a Belgian Malinois named Cairo participated in the bin Laden raid, and Conan, another Belgian Malinois, helped kill terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Dogs have long been both human companions and excellent hunters, and that has made them into very effective war animals.
Related: The Dogs of War: How man’s best friend serves in the military
Yep, camels have seen use in modern warfare! In World War I, camels served in the Sinai campaign of 1917. The big beasts could be fitted with two stretchers, allowing the camels to be living ambulances for up to two wounded men. These cacolet stretchers ensured troops were safely transported across the desert.
Camels are strong war animals with a goofy nature. They tend to be smarter than horses and are better equipped to deal with desert terrain like that of the Sinai campaign. While they proved efficient, I doubt they were a relaxing ride for a wounded man.
Related: The brutality of trench weapons in World War I
We did an entire article on war elephants, but they weren’t used to break through infantry lines in modern warfare. Instead, they served as massive beasts of burden that could help move heavy loads. During World War I, the British took elephants from famed circuses and used them in place of the horses sent to war. A single Indian elephant could do the job of three horses carting war materials through cities and into ports.
In World War II Burma, a British veteran of the previous World War named James Howard Williams joined a British special operations unit that specialized in guerilla warfare. Mr. Williams brought with him a group of beloved elephants that helped carry weapons, build bridges, and ferry troops across rivers. They served honorably as war animals and, at one point, scurried up a mountain to escape from the Japanese advance.
Related: War elephants: The original heavy armor fought into the 1950s
Horses, much like dogs, have long been war animals, and in World War I, cavalry charges still existed… although the machine gun would eliminate the need for horse fighting quite quickly. Yet, horses remained on the payroll through both World Wars and even up into Korea. They could be near-silent transports and offered a fast means to navigate behind the lines for messengers when roads weren’t abundant.
A horse could still pull heavy machine guns, anti-tank weapons, and more. While the truck was more efficient, the horse was more common and more accessible in many places during the Second World War.
In the early days of the Global War on Terror, Green Berets became horse soldiers within the Northern Alliance. The rugged mountain terrain was more friendly to horses than any other kind of vehicle.
Related: Special Tactics Airmen Are Training to Ride Horses into Battle
Mules aren’t as pretty or as celebrated as their equine cousins, but they’ve pulled their fair share of weight in both World Wars and beyond. These stout creatures are strong, but also a little stubborn which might explain why the United States Military Academy uses the humble mule as its mascot. Mules can pack a load into hazardous terrain and move up and down mountains and through areas no truck could reach. They’ve pulled ammo, supplies, and wounded men into and out of battlefields across multiple modern conflicts.
You might think technology would evolve past the mule, but you’d be wrong. Combat operations in Afghanistan saw a significant return to using mules as war animals. The MarineCorps even implemented an Animal Packing course into pre-deployment training for some troops, to make sure Marines knew the best ways to do it.
Related: DARPA’s newest sub-hunting weapon is… Shrimp
Ask any infantrymen how ‘comms‘ are working and watch the complaints slide out of his mouth. Modern communication devices can be finicky, so just imagine how difficult radios were to put up with in World War I. As a result, the classic messenger pigeon was used to pass messages from the front lines to the rear and back again. Of course, that meant these pigeons could be valuable sources of information for the enemy.
During World War I, America’s Lost Battalion, a group of more than 500 American warfighters isolated by German troops, famously received messages via homing pigeon. In World WarII, the U.S. Army Signal Corps developed some very effective homing pigeon systems that could be released from planes or deployed at sea to deliver messages.
A Pigeon named G.I. Joe famously delivered a life-saving message in Italy in 1943, preventing an American air raid from wiping out a slew of American soldiers who had managed to capture an enemy town. Many of these war animals even received awards, with G.I. Joe receiving the Dickin Medal for gallantry during his lifetime, and posthumously receiving the Animals in War & Peace Medal of Bravery.
Related: Meet Callie, the military’s only search-and-rescue dog
Cats don’t necessarily serve in the military. Have you ever met a cat? Do you think they’d join a military force where people tell them what to do? Nah, that’s just not in the nature of cats. Yet, these war animals have helped soldiers tremendously throughout modern warfare. How so? Well, they raise morale, and they kill rats.
Mostly, they kill rats. This time-honored tradition brought cats to the trenches, to the bases of World War 2, to the firebases of Vietnam, and the patrols bases of Afghanistan. Our Combat Outpost had a healthy family of cats that were the only thing that kept the hundreds of mice at bay. Officially, pets can’t be kept by Soldiers overseas, but we ensured those cats had good reason to stick around.
War Animals in service
When man goes to war, the world goes to war. From knights, to cavalry, to counter-terrorism, animals offer unique abilities and talents that give the user an edge in combat. They serve in numerous roles, and even today, technology has yet to replace our need for a helping hand from our animal companions.
Ralph Blanchette says
They were never deployed but during WWII pigeons were also trained to pilot bombs to their targets. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Pigeon
Also, if you want to delve into the earlier history of animals in warfare, I have come across many accounts in my studies of ancient Greece, including “The Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World” (search on ‘animal’) and “Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World.”