Man’s Best Friend

People used dogs in battle long before WW One. We can see them in murals and on artifacts from Babylonia, Egypt and Greece from thousands of years ago. Dogs were used by the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon. The Romans used war dogs and maintained whole companies of them. They wore ferocious spiked collars on both their necks and ankles. Occasionally, they starved them before unleashing them on a foe. They used the “Molossian dogs of Epirus,” who were the “top dog” until the Mastiffs (Pugnaces Britanniae) were born and bred in Britain. The Celts used dogs, too. Knights in Medieval times also used dogs in battle, as did the Spaniards and even the American colonial armies, who used them for tracking.

Napoleon’s armies used dogs as well. After the Battle of Marengo, Napoleon said, “I walked over the battlefield and saw among the slain, a poodle bestowing a last lick upon his dead friend’s face. Never had anything on any of my battlefields caused me a like emotion.” Yes, large Poodles were war dogs.

Germany led the warring nations in the use of dogs in World War One and utilized over 30,000 canine soldiers. The Imperial German staff had begun to develop breeds of war dogs and they established the world’s very first Military War Dog School near Berlin in 1884, training dogs as sentries and as messengers. The Germans tried using mostly gun dogs at first. Large Poodles were selected for their intelligence and sharp scent, but poodles not only suffered in high heat, they were short-sighted. Next, the St. Bernard was tried unsuccessfully, then the Pointer, who, although having intelligence and physical strength, also had a deep rooted hunting instinct that was almost impossible to eradicate. Scottish farm collies were considered as a potential war-dog, plus Airedales, and finally the other newer breeds such as the German Shepherd, Doberman and the Boxer.

Dogs used in war eventually included Ratters to keep the trenches free of vermin, Sentinel Dogs to give advance warnings, Mascots for troop morale, Messenger dogs and countless Red Cross Dogs (also called Casualty, Ambulance or Mercy Dogs). Of 1,678 dogs sent to the front up to the end of May 1915, 1,274 ended up being German shepherd-dogs, 142 Airedale terriers, 239 Dobermanns and 13 Rottweilers.

The Germans began training their dogs at seven months old with a regimen of exercise, and the dogs were allowed to associate only with their trainers and assistants. Barking was discouraged and the dogs were not allowed to develop a taste for hunting game. They were positively trained using praise, not punishment, and slowly inured to gunshots and other war noises.

Just a few years after Captain Max von Stephanitz founded the breed, the German Shepherd dog became king of the military dogs. After 1907, the many enthusiastic German Shepherd clubs across Germany were amalgamated into a large organization under the leadership of the Crown Prince and the Imperial General Staff called “Der Verein fur Deutsche Schaferhunde.” The German Shepherd soon proved its ability to perform just about any assigned task as military dogs. Their courage amazed not only the German soldiers, but the American and English military as well. In Germany after the war, the German Shepherd became the first “seeing eye dog” to guide blinded soldiers.

The Prince of Red Cross dogs in war was the Boxer. The Boxer also guarded and patrolled, acted as messenger dogs and served as pack-carriers and attack dogs. The ancestors of German Pedigreed “Boxers” were dogs owned by Kaiser Wilhelm and King Edward VII of England, the result of a cross between the German Mastif (Great Dane) and the English Bulldog, a combination suggested by the Kaiser. In 1894, three Germans decided to stabilize the breed and put it on exhibition at a dog show in Munich in 1895. Ironically, the first U.S. Red Cross Dogs were a gift of six puppies from Kaiser Wilhelm’s own kennel that were given to the Red Cross by a private party in 1916.

The Sanitary hounds or Sanitatshunde went on to the fields with saddlebags of medical supplies. They looked for the wounded and comforted the dying. They were trained to either carry their short leash in their mouth if they found wounded or to let it hang loose if they didn’t. They were able to distinguish between the dead and the apparently dead; the former they left untouched while the latter they comforted. While the English and French armies found it impossible to employ ambulance dogs on the western front, but the German army successfully used them, especially during the Russian retreat on the eastern front, and thousands of German soldiers owed their lives to ambulance dogs.

Messenger-dogs constituted an integral part of the German army. a job that required great courage and skill, sometimes under heavy fire, to carry messages between troops. They also transported communications wires by wearing a spool of wire that unwound as the dog ran between its battlefield limits. An infantry regiment was allotted a maximum of 12 dogs, while a battalion might have six, the allotments being made by the Messenger Dog Section (Meldehundstaffel) at the Army Headquarters. The breeds chiefly employed for message carrying work were German sheep-dogs, Dobermanns, Airedale terriers, and Rottweilers. The Germans employed the dogs on the “ liaison “ principle with two keepers and the dog travelling backwards and forwards between both. In the British army the messenger-dog was trained only to make the return journey to the one keeper.

In the Trenches: Dogs don gas masks and a dog leaps across a dangerous abyss.

The German Army had 6,000 trained war dogs at their ready war broke out 1914, and they went straight to the fronts with their regiments. When the war was over, at least 7,000 war dogs from Germany alone had been killed. They had spared thousands of soldiers’ lives.