“Of course, you do know why we run dog agility and working trials as we do.”
Like a thunderbolt, these words ignited an emotion in Julia Robertson that would change her life forever and inspire her to found War Dogs Remembered.
Julia Robertson and her dog Molly representing War Dogs Remembered at Ypres
A chance conversation with a client whose dog she was treating with Galen Myotherapy, revealed the amazing story behind the fun and games of dog competitions and sports like working trials and agility activities. Because, as you run with your dog, encouraging them over jumps and through tunnels, you are doing exactly what dogs were taught to do in the war zone. Exactly. The same. Your dog may have to jump that 6 foot scale or wall to get a clear round in a working trial. Their wartime equivalent had to jump high and swiftly over that wall and into the trenches, probably under gunfire, risking at best shredded paws from the barbed wire at the top of the wall, at worst taking a fatal shot…..When your dog dashes through that clean multi-coloured PVC tunnel, they are echoing all the dogs who ran, crashed and pushed their way through the trench tunnels, no doubt covered in mud and all sorts of horrific debris….. And the long jump that for working trials needs to be 9 foot – the width of a trench. Who knows what dogs had to leap across in the lines as they traversed the complex, endless and disgusting trench system. All in the name of serving us.
A poignant juxtaposition of saving lives and having fun
Brave. Loyal. Lifesaving. Thousands upon thousands of these dogs risked everything and many gave their lives in WW1. At least a third were beloved family pets, donated to the war effort in response to Kitchener pointing his finger out of that poster. Can you imagine stroking the dog on your lap or at your feet who’s gazing lovingly into your eyes, knowing you are about to pack them off to The Front. The war had changed the way you did things. People on all sides were willing to sacrifice their sons, their horses and even their dogs to the war effort.
There are numerous stories of how animals have been, and still are, used in warfare and the sacrifices they make. War Horse gave us an insight into the appalling fate of millions of horses and how many never made it back from the Great War. An American pigeon called GI Joe saved more than 1,000 lives in WW2 when he got a message through saying that a village about to be bombed had actually been recaptured by British forces. He was dispatched as a last resort and arrived at the airbase just in time to stop the Allied air force from bombing their own men.
Dolphins have been used to locate underwater mines as well as rescue personnel and locate objects. The US Navy, for example, is known to have deployed dolphins in the two Gulf Wars and sea lions after the 9/11 attacks.
Along with sacrifice and terror, has also come an honouring. The Dickin Medal was instituted in 1943 by PDSA founder, Maria Dickin, to honour the work of animals in WW2. It is the equivalent of the Victoria Cross and bears the words “For Gallantry” and “We also serve” . GI Joe was presented with the medal in 1946. Our Dumb Friends League provided vital veterinary care for animal casualties from 1912. It was later renamed The Blue Cross Fund after the flags flying above the animal hospitals and ambulances to distinguish them from The Red Cross. There are also many charities paying tribute to the role of animals used in war.
Dogs have served us faithfully in times of war, ever since we domesticated them. They are the only animal that has served throughout while others have come and gone. Their loyalty and range of skills is invaluable in combat. War Dogs Remembered was set up by Julia in 2015 to pay tribute to and raise awareness of all the dogs who have served in the military.
The charity is keen to encourage a show of respect rather than a celebration of this loyal service. Every year, Julia takes part in the Remembrance Parade in Ypres, Belgium, with her Labrador Molly who wears a coat saying,
“Pet dogs like me saved thousands of soldier’s lives”
Molly Robertson at the Menin Gate as part of the Ypres Remembrance Parade in Belgium
The British government was initially against using dogs in WW1, but our desperation grew as the war dragged on and they were eventually drafted in to help. We taught them to do all sort of things, but most of all to save lives – ours not theirs. Those pet dogs – primary sniper targets - walked out onto the battlefield carrying first aid to soldiers who could self-administer to themselves and to their comrades. More gravely wounded soldiers would take solace from these mercy dogs who would wait with them whilst they died.
Other dogs ran messages down the lines, proving much faster and less obvious than a human runner or any vehicle. Early in 1917, Airedale Terriers Wolf and Prince ran 4 km in less than an hour through a smoke barrage over very difficult terrain (as classified by war records) to deliver a message when all other methods of communicating with HQ had failed. These dogs were literally trailblazers. They had been trained by Lt-Col. Richardson who was subsequently asked by the War Office to establish the British War Dog School later that year. Although he had pioneered his work with Airedales, who showed great aptitude for sentry and patrol work, other breeds were recruited according to their suitability for the various tasks needed. Sheep dogs, collies, lurchers, Irish terriers, Welsh terriers and deerhounds were considered especially useful. Likewise, German shepherd and Doberman type dogs were commonly used by German troops. Dogs were also used as scout dogs to sniff out the enemy, ratters and even mascots giving emotional comfort to stressed and injured soldiers.
Dogs were sought from homes like Battersea Dogs Home, police were instructed to round up and send strays, and eventually the government appealed for family pets to be donated. It was a time of worsening food shortages and so the government promised that the dogs would be well fed and cared for in the Army.
Thankfully, the War Dog School recruits were kindly trained with positive reinforcement techniques despite it being a dreadful irony that such a gentle method was being used for something so ultimately tragic. Lt-Col. Richardson said that the most important qualities for the dogs’ handlers were:
“To be of an honest, conscientious character, with sympathetic understanding for animals”
Although many dogs were active through the fiercest bombardments, Richardson’s records were brim-full with amazing testimonials. The fact that the dogs were nimble and so well trained often meant that injuries were avoided.
Dogs were extensively employed throughout WW2 and continue to be used today in conflicts and peace keeping duties around the world.
So, how does War Dogs Remembered fit in?
“We wanted to do more than create a memorial,” said Julia. “We felt there was a need for something more practical that dog owners and walkers could physically connect to and gain some sort of feeling for how much these dogs did, and still do, for us.” This is where the idea for developing a series of dog walking trails came from. In collaboration with Steve Jenkinson of the Kennel Club, a specialist in interactive trail construction, and under the guidance of Isabel George, an expert author on animals in war, War Dogs Remembered is about to open the first of these trails.
“We are so excited to launch the first of many trails here in Oakley Green, Windsor,” said Julia. “It’s right in the heart of the Broom Farm Army Estate in 8 acres of wonderful parkland, so it will be an enriching place for soldiers and their families to go. It’s open to the general public and their dogs to enjoy as well. Following the trail and trying out the obstacles will provide a great opportunity for owners to really connect with their dogs.
“We’re also getting local schools involved in choosing which dogs are to be remembered. Children can get to know each dog as an individual and learn about the brave contribution they made to war. This will enable them to gain an insight into the wider aspects of war and its implications for their world today.