Animals of war

Heroes: The Dickin Medal has been awarded to 65 animals, including over 30 pigeons.

Throughout human history, people have fought in wars – and they have taken animals with them. But what did these animal war heroes do? And how are they honoured on Remembrance Day?

  • How long have humans used animals in war?

    Humans have enlisted animals to help fight their wars since prehistoric times, and some of the world’s earliest historical sources tell of battles between ancient warlords in horse-drawn chariots. Dogs and horses were probably the first animals used in war. Many are still used today in modern military and police tasks.

  • What other animals have served?

    Throughout history, humans have not just used horses and dogs in battle. The Ancient Greeks and Romans catapulted bee hives into besieged cities. At the battle of Tondibi in West Africa in 1591, armies used stampeding cattle against lines of soldiers.

    In the Early Modern period across East Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, armies even trained elephants for war. Though their use declined with the spread of firearms, they continued to be used in combat in Thailand and Vietnam into the 19th century.

    Animals have also helped soldiers in practical ways. During World War One, troops enlisted cats and dogs to hunt rats in the trenches, while canaries were used to detect poisonous gas. Animals also served as mascots, with bears, pigs and cats among those known to keep troops company.

  • Why are pigeons useful?

    Like many birds, pigeons have an innate homing ability. It is thought to be based on their sensitivity to the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field. Many birds use the skill in their annual migrations.

    People have used this skill to send messages since at least the 6th century BC. The Persian king, Cyrus, used pigeons to communicate with distant parts of his empire. Generals have used them during war for centuries. The use of carrier pigeons reached its peak during World War I, when more than 200,000 birds were used by the Allied Forces alone.

  • What is the Dickin Medal?

    Commonly referred to as the “Animal Victoria Cross”, the medal was instituted in 1943 to honour the work of animals in World War II. The words on the medal read “For gallantry” and “We also serve”.

    The first three recipients were three pigeons serving with the RAF. The medal was awarded 54 times during World War II to 32 pigeons, three horses, 18 dogs and one cat called Simon. The most recent animal to win the medal is Treo, a black Labrador who served as an arms and explosives search dog in Afghanistan.

  • Were animals always looked after?

    There are certainly countless stories of close bonds forged between humans and animals. There was the friendship of Warrior and Captain Seely, who fought side by side throughout World War One. There was the HMS Glasgow sailor who risked his life to save an enemy’s pig from drowning.

    Sadly, though, not all animals could survive. The RSPCA estimates that more than 480,000 horses, mules and camels died between 1914 and 1918 alone. Every year on Remembrance Day, millions around the world wear a poppy to honour those killed in war. Many choose a purple poppy specifically to remember the animals.

  • How do we still use animals for military operations?

    Today, military and police dogs are seen all over the world and undertake numerous tasks including support work, search and rescue and detection.

    Other animals are used too. Bottlenose dolphins and sea lions have been trained by the US Navy to perform military tasks, like harbour protection or mine clearance. And in September, an African giant pouched rat won a prize for discovering 39 landmines and 28 unexploded bombs while working in Cambodia.

You Decide

  1. Should military use of animals be banned?


  1. Write your own poem about an animal war hero. It can be one of those mentioned above, or another you have read about.

Word Watch

The small birds are much more sensitive to small amounts of gas than humans. Before gas warfare, they were used in mines to check for carbon monoxide.
Naturally occurring or inherited. The word comes from a Latin word meaning “to be born”.
An animal with a homing ability can return to its territory after travelling away from it for a length of time.
The arctic tern has the longest migration known in the animal kingdom. Every year it travels 90,000 km from pole to pole – from Greenland in the North to Weddell Sea in Antarctica.
Allied Forces
The major Allied powers in World War I were Great Britain (and the British Empire), France and the Russian Empire, formally linked by the Treaty of London in September 1914.
Victoria Cross
The highest medal of honour. It is given for valour in the face of the enemy to members of the British Armed Forces.
A term used to describe courage and bravery – especially in battle.
The Royal Air Force is the United Kingdom’s aerial warfare force.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals played an important role in World War One, looking after animals belonging to soldiers when they returned home on leave. After the war, they arranged quarantines and returned thousands of pets to their owners.
African giant pouched rat
A species of nocturnal rat. They can be trained to detect a certain compound within explosives, meaning that they can find mines much quicker than traditional metal detectors.

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