Hero Dogs of WWI

This story came to my attention when I saw it on a recent Task and Purpose site posting. It is one of those sidebar stories that come out of war that insert just a bit of normalcy, or moments of warmth or hilarity, in the midst of the horrors of war. It involves the presence and the unique services that “man’s best friend” brought to the soldiers in the trenches during WWI.

The story I read is actually about the service that the civilian organization the YMCA provided to the soldiers, even on the front lines, during WWI. But the focus was on the unique ways that dogs were used to serve the fighting men during that war.

Photo: YouTube/US National Archives

There were many dogs that were used in a variety of different ways, sometimes leaning into the characteristics and personalities of the different breeds. The first canine hero mentioned was a small mutt that was given the unimaginative but endearing name of “Mutt.” Mutt was used to deliver cigarettes to the men in the trenches, and he did so with the typical enthusiasm that is associated with dogs.

As the Task and Purpose article put it, “he knew the uniform of the day” and wore it with pride. Inn the article, there is a few-seconds-long clip of him wearing a cravat with the YMCA logo in it and the vest he would wear to deliver cartons of cigarettes to the men in the trenches on the Aisne-Marne front.

Photo: YouTube/US National Archives

Those cigarettes were important. WWI was the first war that Americans participated in where morale was taken seriously. Cigarettes provided some of that morale because they alleviated boredom and provided some psychological uplift. They were thought to be useful in steadying the hands and in creating wakefulness or alertness in the troops.

Cigarettes were useful in covering over the actual stench of the battlefield that was a noxious combination of dead and decaying bodies, human waste, body odors, and the sulphuric haze of explosions. They also dulled the taste buds to the poor quality of the rations the men generally had to eat.

Photo: YouTube/US National Archives

Gen. Pershing was quoted in the article as saying, “A cigarette may make the difference between a hero and a shirker.” This all seems very accurate to me. Our rations in Vietnam, whether C-rations or the dehydrated and lighter long rations, included cigarettes, and they did provide some of the same effects for us.

Mutt was a recognized and well-loved pet in those trenches. Of course, being a dog, he had no idea what pleasures he was bringing to those tired, frightened, war-burdened soldiers, but he understood and loved the attention and the petting that he got in return. He did his service without fear and out of the incomprehensible enthusiasm for life that is so common to dogs.


There were other dogs that were used for other purposes as well. Some were used to carry messages between trenches and units. The larger dogs were used to pull machine guns. Terriers, in particular, proved useful for something most people don’t think about, something that was a part of the daily reality of trench warfare and the bunker life that we lived in Khe Sanh during the Tet offensive in Vietnam—that is, pest control. They were great at keeping the rat numbers under control.

There was one other dog in the article with a name. His name was Sgt. Stubby. He participated with his unit in 17 battles on the Western Front. He became famous for one incident where, with his sense of hearing and smell, he saved his unit from a gas attack. But the most beloved memory of him is the time he bit a German soldier in the butt. He actually came home from the war to become the Georgetown University Hoya mascot.

Photo: Wikipedia

There have always been pets on the front lines, or on the warships at sea, that provided the one thing no other could: a few moments of joy to the troops. They have, of course, been useful for very practical reasons, especially for their instincts, their loyalty, their powerful senses of hearing and smell, and they have proven extremely useful in our most recent wars. But it is the playful, enthusiastic, unconditional love and loyalty of a dog that brings out the best in all of us too.

I hope you enjoy this little piece of history as much as I did.

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