Many nations have special days to remember their wars (such as Australia’s Remembrance Day on 11 November), but I know of only one country that specifically honours the bravery of animals in war. In the United Kingdom, the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, a veterinary charity, awards the Dickin Medal to animals that display conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving in the armed forces. Think of it as the Victoria Cross for animals.
When looking into the history of this medal, however, I discovered that many brave animals have sadly been overlooked because, it seems, we prefer certain species over others.
It is no surprise that dogs, our best friends, have been awarded many of the medals (18 out of 64). Cats, obviously, are not well suited for service in a military hierarchy: they prefer to have people serve them instead. Just one cat was awarded the medal, a ship’s cat called Simon serving on HMS Amethyst. Simon was wounded in 1949 by a cannon shell, but kept on catching rats in an impressive act of selfless sacrifice, at least from a human point of view. So it’s cats one; dogs 18. But the largest group of medal recipients has been carrier pigeons, which have claimed 32 of them, going back to ace message-deliverer White Vision in 1943. Apparently even the often-scorned pigeon can achieve nobility through service in battle.
In Australia, the most revered animal war hero is probably Simpson’s donkey at Gallipoli (or donkeys, because he used more than one). John Simpson Kirkpatrick, an Englishman, first deserted the merchant navy and then volunteered for the Australian armed forces, but his donkeys were conscripts. Simpson and his donkeys became part of the ANZAC legend, which is probably better than any medal.
Horses are magnificent animals, and feature in many war monuments, war films and lavish theatrical productions such as War Horse. But I’m not sure that any have received any medals, maybe because horses have no place in modern warfare and thus must demonstrate their gallantry in other pursuits, such as competing for medals at the Olympics.
Dolphins are much more handy in conflict situations. The US Navy started its Marine Mammal Program in the 1960s, and dolphins have served in combat zones during the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Dolphins are mainly deployed for mine clearing and the detection of combat divers. They are useless for attack missions, as they cannot differentiate between friends and enemies, be it soldiers or ships. This, perhaps, makes them the most intelligent combatants on the planet.
One lowly animal species has been completely overlooked. No medals, no monuments, no mention in history books or patriotic children’s novels. No one knows about its sacrifice. I am speaking of the brave and gallant slug. In World War I, slugs were used to detect poison gas, the presence of which they signalled by closing their breathing openings. Through this early warning signal, they saved the lives of countless soldiers during mustard gas attacks. They truly deserve better recognition. Who knows? Maybe, one day, Steven Spielberg will make a movie (later to be adapted for the stage) called War Slug.
The most useful of all animals in war is a certain species of hairless ape. It can even be trained to attack its own kind. It has received more medals than any other animal, and the history books are full of its exploits.
» Michel Streich is a regular contributor to The Big Issue. He recently illustrated the main stories for Ed#497, about the housing crisis in Australia.
This article first appeared in Ed#445 of The Big Issue.