Commemorating war and the environment through non-human species

Canadian Mounted Rifles, ca. 1914-1918, Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-12402

Canadian Mounted Rifles, ca. 1914-1918, Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-12402

By Kaitlin Wainwright

In November 2012, the Canadian government unveiled three plaques and a bronze statue of a dog in Ottawa’s Confederation Park, adjacent to the South African War Memorial. These were the first commemorative efforts in Canada in 75 years that foregrounded the role of animals in war.

The environment is, at best, an emerging theme in Canadian military history narratives. One might argue that this is because major Canadian conflicts in recent memory have been fought on the soil of others and the effects of war on the environment have been less visible than the effects of war on individuals.[1] The stories of animals in combat provide an opportunity to bridge this long-existing gap in the larger narrative of warfare.

The contribution of non-human animal species to Canadian conflict has been extensive: Birds, horses, goats, dogs, cats, reindeer, and rodents have served in conflicts, while others (such as the whale) were made use of on the homefront. Carrier pigeons and horse-drawn artillery are common examples of animals’ participation in war, but mascots, such as Gander (a dog belonging to the Royal Rifles) and Batisse (a goat belonging to the 22nd Regiment) have proved useful in battle; Gander was awarded the Dickin Medal for his valiant efforts in Hong Kong during the Second World War.

The services that the animals were trained to provide played an instrumental role on the battlefield and — like soliders – they often paid the price with their lives. During the South African War (1899-1902), half a million horses were dispatched to South Africa, of which 50,000 came from Canada. It has been suggested that the average life expectancy of a horse upon its unloading at Port Elizabeth was six weeks, and 80% of the horses would not live through the conflict. Between 1914 and 1918, over one million horses were engaged in war, pulling ambulances, supply wagons, and reconnaissance. Only 62,000 were still alive when armistice was declared. During the Second World War, an estimated six to eight million horses and mules died in action. (This was largely because of a heavy reliance on cavalry by Germany and the Soviet Union.) There remains a reliance on animals in military action – including horses, dolphins, bees, and dogs – that is absent from public discourse on the military.

Memorials of war animals are as old as the animals’ participation itself. In 1905, three years after the South African War ended, the “Horse Memorial” was unveiled at Port Elizabeth. Canada’s first turn at foregrounding animal participation in a memorial came in 1927. Inside the antechamber of the Peace Tower (then known as the Tower of Victory and Peace) of Parliament Hill’s Centre Block is a tympanum (a semi-circular decorative element bound by a lintel and arch) called The Tunnellers’ Friends. The carving represents the animals that served during the First World War – reindeer, pack mules, carrier pigeons, horses, dogs, canaries, and mice – the “humble beasts that served and died.” Previously and subsequently, Canada included animals alongside soldiers, in particular men on or with their horse. The South African War Memorial in Central Memorial Park in Calgary, unveiled in 1911, and our national war memorial (officially titled “The Response”), are two in particular that place the horse in the background.

However, over the past decade, there has been a renewed interest in interpreting animals’ participation through war memorials and other commemoration. In particular, a growing number of memorials do not depict humans at all, seemingly providing a privileged status to the non-human animals and implying agency. The best known of these on Park Lane in London is a 2004 tribute to those who “served and died alongside British and allied forces in wars.” As Hilda Kean points out, this focus on British and allied animals suggests a commonality of perspective and shared allegiance among animals that may not in fact exist.[2] In 2009, monuments were unveiled in Belgium, France, and Australia. In each of these instances, exhibitions followed shortly thereafter depicting the assistance provided by animals in wartime, as well as the difficulties caused by some animals.

The 2012 sculpture and interpretive plaques in Ottawa’s Confederation Park are a commendable effort in recognizing the complex relationship of animals and troops. In fact, unlike the memorial in Britain, the Ottawa dedication initially speaks broadly about the role of animals – across years and boundaries that aren’t identified as part of the Canadian narrative. Given that the Canadian War Museum’s Tim Cook recently published a cover story in Canada’s History on the very subject, it seems like the opportunity is ripe to build animals – and more of the environment – into our military history narratives.

Kaitlin Wainwright is a graduate of Carleton University’s Public History program.  She is currently the Plaques and Markers Program Coordinator at Heritage Toronto.


[1] There are, of course, notable exceptions to this, such as Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick, which was the focus of the second chapter of Joy Parr’s Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953-2003. See Pete Anderson’s review of the book here: http://activehistory.ca/2013/03/the-politics-of-place-local-history-and-the-megaproject/

[2] Hilda Kean,  “Animals and War Memorials: Different Approaches to Commemorating the Human-Animal Relationship” in Ryan Hediger (ed.), Animals and War: Studies of Europe and North America, 2013.

2 thoughts on “Commemorating war and the environment through non-human species

  1. Dougherty

    Can you elaborate on how whales, dolphins, bees, and rodents have been utilized during times of war?

  2. kaitlin

    Of course.

    As David Wencer elaborates in his Historicist’s piece (http://torontoist.com/2012/08/reinventing-the-whale/), elements of the whale were used both on the homefront and overseas. At home, the whale became a viable alternative to traditional meats towards the end of the First World War. I’ve seen references to its re-emergence (both in Canada and the United States) during the Second World War. I’d suggest reading Wencer’s article, as it delves into much greater details.

    Rodents were used for a variety of purposes. The 1927 work, The Tunnelers Friends, acknowledges their efforts in the tunnels, which was shared with birds — the high metabolism of these small animals made them more susceptible to dangerous gas. They were issued as official items to many regiments and upon becoming unconscious, they would be brought to the surface to be revived. Rat carcasses were also used to conceal explosive devices by both the British and German troops during the Second World War. Of course, the presence of rodents was not always welcome. The Royal Navy issued cats to control verminous rodents on its vessels.

    Bees and their honey have been used in combat for centuries. According to Jeffrey Lockwood, beehives were historically thrown into closed spaces to draw out the enemy. Entomological warfare tactics were developed by both sides throughout the Second World War, and I would recommend reading John Bryden’s Deadly Allies: Canada’s Secret War, 1937-47 for more on this period. In a contemporary context, bees are being used by several governments to locate landmines, in particular in Croatia. They’re considered a good alternative to dogs and rats (which were used previously) because their weight is unlikely to set off the mine.

    Finally, to my knowledge, the use dolphins align with more recent technological developments in war and has been primarily led by the United States and present-day Russia. Since 1960, their navy has employed the use of dolphins for underwater surveillance that has included enemy swimmers and underwater mines. In fact, earlier this year, a dolphin training to search for mines in San Diego uncovered a 19th century torpedo (http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/05/21/185812523/dolphins-find-19th-century-navy-torpedo-in-pacific-ocean). Beginning in 1975, beluga whales were also been used for this purpose.

    The participation of animals in combat is extensive and I couldn’t provide an exhaustive list. An excellent starting point is Richard P. Tucker and Edmund Russell, eds., Natural Enemy, Natural Ally: Toward an Environmental History of War (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2004).

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