They had no choice

ANIMALS have served in war for hundreds of years, from elephants during the time of Hannibal, to the present day bomb-sniffing dogs used in the Afghanistan conflict.

If pressed to nominate a famous animal who served in war, many of us would mention Murphy (also known as Duffy, or Abdul), Simpson’s first donkey – the Gallipoli donkey who became part of Australia’s national psyche.

The Australian War Animal Memorial Organisation (AWAMO) recognises the role of animals serving alongside their human comrades on the battlefield. Since 2010 it has established 30 war animal memorial plaques within Australia and internationally.

On 21 July this year, the AWAMO will open Australia’s official war animal memorial in Pozieres, France.

Pozieres, a small village in the Somme valley, was the scene of costly fighting by Australian troops in 1916.

The AWAMO will display purple poppies to commemorate the contribution and sacrifice of animals during wars and conflict.

People are invited to crochet or knit purple poppies to be taken to Pozieres and displayed at the ceremony. The poppies will be laid at the ceremony and some of the knitted or crotched poppies will be made into a horse blanket as part of the memorial.

Horses played a pivotal role in World War I transporting troops, hauling supplies and equipment, and participating in cavalry charges.

More than 136,000 horses were sent with Australian troops in WWI. These sturdy horses, originally from NSW, became known as ‘Walers.’

When peace was declared, many Australian light horsemen were shocked to learn their horses were not coming home, due to quarantine regulations.

More than 13,000 horses were sold or transferred to other armies. Over 3000 were destroyed. Only one, Major General Sir William Bridge’s horse, named ‘Sandy’, returned at the end. In 1918, he was put out to pasture at the Central Remount Depot at Maribyrnong.

Animals were also subjected to artillery fire and gas attacks. Special nose plugs were developed for horses so they could breathe during a gas attack.
Later, gas masks were made for dogs and horses.

Dogs have also served alongside Australian troops. In WWI both sides employed dogs on the battlefield, especially in the trenches, where terriers hunted and killed rats. There were also sentry dogs, scout dogs, casualty dogs (or mercy dogs: trained to locate the wounded on battlefields. They were equipped with medical supplies and remained with badly wounded soldiers) and messenger dogs.

One German messenger dog, a doberman named Roff, was captured by the 13th Battalion near Villers-Bretonneux in May 1918.  His name was changed to ‘Digger’ and he became a mascot for the unit.  After the war he was taken to England, and placed in quarantine kennels. Due to quarantine regulations, he was unable to make the trip to Australia, so he remained in the kennels, dying of an illness in 1919. After his death he was stuffed and mounted, and is on display in the Australian War Memorial.

Gunner was a dog whose amazing hearing helped defend Darwin from enemy bombs in World War II. Aircraftman Percy Westcott rescued this six-month-old stray kelpie pup from the wreckage of Darwin after Japanese planes had bombed the city in 1942.

Gunner could hear Japanese bombers before they showed up on the radar. Apparently he knew the difference between enemy aircraft and allied aircraft.

He was so reliable that Westcott was given approval to sound a portable air siren whenever Gunner’s whining alerted him. The dog helped alert Darwin’s citizens during 60 raids, saving many lives.

The Dickin medal is awarded for animal war service. The animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross was instituted in 1943 by Maria Dickin, founder of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), a British veterinary charity. The bronze medallion bears the words: ‘For Gallantry’ and ‘we also serve’, encircled by a laurel wreath. The green, brown and blue stripes symbolise the naval, land, and air forces. This was not the first award for animal war service; prior to the Dickin medal, a pigeon named Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre by France for helping to save 200 men during World War I.

Carrier pigeons played a vital role, getting messages through enemy lines. Their success in reaching destinations saved thousands of people.

The Dickin Medal has been awarded 66 times, the recipients being 32 pigeons, 29 dogs, three horses and one cat. At least two Australian carrier pigeons have been awarded the Dickin Medal for their service during World War II. One carried a message through a tropical storm, bringing help to an army boat carrying vital cargo. The other carried a message through heavy fire, bringing relief to a patrol surrounded by the enemy, which had no other means of communication.

In Vietnam, Australian troops left behind 11 black Labrador tracker dogs, which was a great source of grief; nowadays dogs who serve overseas come home.

Last April, three dogs were included in the Anzac Day March in Mackay. In Ulverstone, Sparky, an explosives detection dog who served in Afghanistan, marched as well.

Animal war service is ongoing, using high-tech equipped explosives detection dogs, as well as more traditional tracker dogs and guard dogs.

We know that animals continue to make a vital contribution in the war effort overseas and at home. Pet therapy is important for many returned servicemen, with a number of organisations training dogs (and, in some cases, cats) to bring comfort and raise self-esteem for those injured in body, mind, and soul.

In November 2004, an ‘Animals in War’ memorial was unveiled in London’s Hyde Park. One of its inscriptions is short but poignant: ‘They had no choice.’

In the Australian War Memorial sculpture garden, a monument, acknowledging the contribution of animals in war, was unveiled in 2009, a joint project between the Australian War Memorial and the RSPCA.

Rev Barbara Allen
Spirituality and Project Worker


Please post your poppy or poppies to:
13 Primrose St
South Toowoomba. Old. 4350.

For more information, or to view a patterns for poppies go to:


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