Dogs are man’s best friend, through the good times and the bad. They’ve always stood by his side – even through the First World War. The U.S. War Dogs Association (USWDA) estimates 20,000 Allied dogs and 30,000 Central dogs served across the European battlefields in 1918. Another source found that more than 2,000 dogs were used on the Western Front alone. Dogs played essential roles in their military service, working so hard they barely had time for fetch.
The Central Powers had devoted war dogs. Today, the German Shephard is often associated with law enforcement. Easy to train, the German people first tapped into this canine’s skills during the First World War. Along with Doberman Pinschers and some English breeds (Airedales, collies, and sheepdogs), the German forces put them through training schools not dissimilar to the human soldiers. The Red Baron himself, famous German pilot Baron Manfred von Richthofen, had a Danish hound named Moritz who he sometimes took up in the sky with him.
Each of the Allied Powers brought man’s best friend to war.
The French established the Service français des chiens de guerre, or French War Service Dogs, and the Brits had the War Dog School of Instruction. Sometimes the pups sent to training were beloved pets, some were sourced from pounds and kennels, and others requisitioned from the police force.
By the time U.S. troops joined the fray, they tended to adopt European dogs into their ranks. A handful of American dogs did make it over the ocean, but their transport was not in line with regulation. The army had not officially recognized service dogs … at first. One especially famous dog trained at a temporary military camp set up at Yale University and went all the way to Soissons with his regiment, eventually being promoted to the rank of Sergeant! Sergeant Stubby was a bull terrier who travelled extensively across France and even back in America once his tour of duty was over. He performed several of the roles dogs were known for in the war.
Sergeant Stubby was certainly a special case in which a dog was given rather free reign in his duties.
He could identify an impending gas attack before the humans’ senses picked up on it. He played guard dog, mercy dog, and even once caught a German soldier who’d been running reconnaissance on the Allied trenches (the act that officially earned him the title of Sergeant). In order to detain the German until American soldiers could come take him in as a prisoner of war, Stubby bit his leg and kept attacking the man to keep him from fleeing. Aside from this incident, he was never officially sent into battle as a fighter. Most dogs weren’t. With the ever-developing advancements in firearms, hand-to-hand combat was rare and a dog wouldn’t stand a chance up against a gun. There’s no denying them attacking a human for the sake of defense or incapacitation, but dogs weren’t actively used as fighting soldiers.
While soldiers were expected to carry out guard duty in the trenches, keeping a vigil throughout the night every night, dogs made for clearly superior sentries. Their superhuman sense of smell and hearing make them very good watchdogs (as any average dog owner would know). For war, rather than barking upon suspecting an intruder, these guard dogs were trained to give a silent signal to their human companions who would stealthily prepare for any oncoming attack.
They weren’t just used as guards on the front lines, though. Both sides would use guard dogs to protect supplies, barracks, and prisoners of war behind the lines.
Telephone lines were unreliable on the front line and radio communications were not yet fully developed for combat, creating a need for incorruptible contact. Carrier pigeons weren’t the only animals trained in this realm. Dogs could easily travel from point A to point B, even with barbed wire separating them from their destination. Jumping over or squeezing under obstacles and live fire, they helped maintain communication.
Dogs were also used for carrying more than just messages. Instead of a too-large team of hefty oxen, two good boys would be leashed onto a gun cart to haul it about. In scenes reminiscent of the Iditarod, the French would use teams of dogs lashed together to tow equipment, even teams of soldiers.
“Mercy dog” was the term used for pups trained for the medical corp
The French trained their own mercy dogs for months before sending them to the front. These dogs would seek out and locate injured soldiers in No Man’s Land, leading the human medical officers to them once the coast was clear.
Because all soldiers (regardless of rank or function) were trained in basic medical care, the dogs would also carry first aid packs strapped onto them so that injured but conscious soldiers could start to tend to their own wounds before help arrived. In the event of fatal cases, thanks to that sixth sense of compassion, mercy dogs would remain with a fading solider, providing the comfort of company until his last breath.
Unfortunately, for both man and dog, this line of work was one of the most deadly. Both species suffered high casualty rates, sticking their necks out for their fellow two- or four-legged soldier.
Behind the lines, mercy dogs in casualty clearing stations and army hospitals would comfort wounded and recovering soldiers. Their presence brought an unexpected familiarity and solace to the men.
Rats were a miserable side effect of living in trenches. Their presence was as inevitable as it was uncomfortable. Many troops trained dogs to catch them to abate their infiltration into an already uncomfortable situation. Much easier to train, they seemed like a smart alternative to cats who probably would not have handled the noise and commotion of the front lines very well.
After the war, many of the dogs discharged from duty were adopted out to soldiers returning home. Not always supported by HQ, pups rescued from both sides (Allied and Central) found new homes and doting masters across the Atlantic. One, Rin Tin Tin, was a German turncoat who ended up breaking into Hollywood, making a career in showbusiness for the rest of his life. Today, the USWDA is a charity that specializes in the support and retirement of service dogs.