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The Heroic Stories of 6 Wartime Animals

Humans and animals have fought side by side since prehistoric times. Dogs have long been our faithful companions in times of peace and conflict, while horses, camels, elephants, and other mounts helped win many of the most important battles in history. 

In modern times, particularly during World War I and World War II, animals played a vital role in active combat, transportation, and communication — not to mention the numerous animal mascots who helped keep morale high in the most testing of times. It’s estimated that in World War I alone, more than 16 million animals served in these various ways. Here are a few such incredible wartime animals, including daring dogs, courageous carrier pigeons, and a mischievous brown bear.

Rags the Scotch-Irish Terrier

In 1918, while walking through the streets of Paris, Private James Donovan saw what he thought was a pile of rags — but when the rags moved, he realized it was a little Scotch-Irish terrier, abandoned in the gutter. Donovan adopted the dog, which followed him everywhere, and Rags, in turn, became the mascot of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division. But Rags was more than just a mascot. Donovan taught him to run messages that were affixed to his collar across the front lines, dodging shellfire as he went. Rags also led medics to wounded men, and — using his superior canine hearing — was able to alert his unit to incoming shellfire. He was also taught to salute with his right front paw. On October 9, 1918, Rags and Donovan were hit by German shellfire and gas shells. Rags sustained injuries to his right front paw, right ear, and right eye, and was mildly gassed, while Donovan was more seriously wounded. Both were treated, but only Rags survived. His unit and other soldiers who knew of Rags’ heroics made sure the pup got safely back to U.S. soil, where he lived a celebrated life until his death at age 20.

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Warrior the Stallion

When General Jack Seely left his home in 1914 to take command of the Canadian Cavalry Corps, his beloved thoroughbred stallion, Warrior, went with him to the Western Front. So began one of the most amazing animal stories of World War I. During the next four years, Warrior took part in some of the most ferocious and pivotal battles of the Great War. He saw action at the Battle of the Somme, Ypres, Cambrai, and Passchendaele, and in 1918 he led a cavalry charge against the Germans at Amiens, in a battle that proved crucial in bringing the terrible war to an end. Warrior never gave in, despite being buried in mud and rubble, trapped in burning stables, and charging through intensive barrages of machine-gun fire and mortar shells — it was no wonder he became known as “the horse the Germans couldn’t kill.” Having survived it all, Warrior and Seely returned home to the Isle of Wight, where the famous stallion lived a peaceful life until his death in 1941 at the age of 32. In 2014, a century after the start of the Great War, Warrior posthumously received the PDSA Dickin Medal (also known as “the animals’ Victoria Cross”), the highest honor an animal can receive in Britain for acts of bravery while serving in a military conflict. Warrior is the only recipient to predate the medal’s institution in 1943, and was chosen to receive the honor on behalf of all the brave animals that served in World War I.

Cher Ami the Pigeon

Being a military homing pigeon during World War I was incredibly dangerous. One such bird, Cher Ami, completed 12 successful missions — far more than normal. His final mission, on October 4, 1918, proved to be his most courageous. Cher Ami was stationed with the 77th Division, known as the “Lost Battalion,” in the Argonne Forest. Behind enemy lines and cut off from Allied troops, the 77th found themselves under heavy bombardment. Their only hope for salvation lay in getting a message out using one of the homing pigeons they carried, but every pigeon they released was shot down by enemy fire — except for their last pigeon, Cher Ami. 

The pigeon took off and was quickly shot through the breast and leg and fell to the ground — but, despite his injuries, the brave Cher Ami got back up and took to the skies once again, eventually reaching his loft and delivering the message that dangled from his wounded leg. Thanks to Cher Ami, help arrived for the battalion’s 194 men, who made it back safely to American lines. For his heroic service, Cher Ami was awarded the French Croix de Guerre. And General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, paid tribute to Cher Ami, saying, “There isn’t anything the United States can do too much for this bird.” It

Judy the Pointer

udy, a purebred pointer, began her service as a ship’s mascot on board the gunboat HMS Gnat in 1936. It wasn’t the most auspicious start, as her tendency to fall overboard often forced the ship to stop to retrieve her. But she soon proved useful thanks to her acute hearing, alerting the British sailors to the presence of river pirates and hostile Japanese aircraft. In 1942, she transferred to the HMS Grasshopper. When the gunboat was attacked by Japanese aircraft, the crew became stranded on an island in the South China Sea. The sailors were growing dangerously thirsty when they came across Judy standing next to a big hole she’d dug, full of fresh water. 

The crew was then captured — along with Judy — and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp in North Sumatra. Frank Williams, a young British sailor, shared his scant prison rations with Judy, keeping them both alive, while Judy helped out by distracting camp guards who were otherwise intent on beating the helpless captives. Judy survived many more adventures — including gunshot wounds and alligator bites — before the war ended. On her return to Britain, she was awarded the Dickin Medal for her service. 

Wojtek the Bear 

In 1942, Polish soldiers adopted a Syrian bear cub whose mother had likely been killed by hunters. They fed him honey, fruit, and marmalade, and gave him condensed milk from an empty vodka bottle. Soon the cub — whom they named Wojtek — began to grow. It wasn’t long before the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the 2nd Polish Corps found themselves with an unlikely mascot: a 600-pound brown bear. 

Wojtek enjoyed chasing the oranges that the soldiers used for grenade practice, and he learned how to break into the communal shower huts for a refreshing shower — resulting in some unwanted water shortages. Despite being something of a troublemaker, the bear was great for morale, especially during the Battle of Monte Cassino, where Wojtek was seen on the front lines carrying empty ammo crates and used shells. After the war, Wojtek spent his retirement at Edinburgh Zoo, where he received many visitors, including his former comrades from the Polish army. 

Rip the Terrier

In 1940, an air raid warden called Mr. E. King was searching through the devastation left in the aftermath of a heavy air raid on London. In the rubble, King spotted a crossbreed terrier, shivering, hungry, and alone. He took pity on the pup and fed it some scraps, and the two became inseparable. The dog, whom King called Rip, soon revealed an innate talent for sniffing out survivors trapped in the ruins of bombed buildings. Despite having no formal training, he became an indispensable search and rescue dog for the Air Raid Patrol. Rip and his human colleagues worked tirelessly throughout the London blitz, and it’s estimated that Rip helped save the lives of more than 100 people. In 1945, he was awarded the Dickin Medal, which he wore on his collar for the rest of his life. 

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Great stories. Thank you.

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