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  • Claire Jordan

Messengers of Hope



Dogs, as we know, are wonderful people.


During the First World War, they also saved many lives as First-Aiders.


A forward-thinking ex-Army Major, Edwin Richardson, had long felt dogs could be trained to help both the military and the police and, by the time the War came, he had been working on training techniques for some time, along with his wife Blanche and a former inspector with the RSPCA.

He promptly offered their services to the Army.


The Army said no, but the indefatigable British Red Cross to their credit were very interested and happily took in some of the Major’s already-trained assistance dogs.


Eventually, the Army had a re-think and commissioned Richardson to set up an official British War Dog School at Shoeburyness. The dogs would be trained as messengers, as sentries, as machine-gun haulers but also as life-savers.


Initially, Richardson recruited his canine students at the Home for Lost Dogs at Battersea (now of course Battersea Dogs’ Home), and then from dogs’ homes around the country. Police forces brought him strays of all breeds.


When more dogs were needed, appeals were published in the press, asking for people to donate their family pets, assuring them that their dogs would be well-fed and cared-for in the Army.


The British public responded admirably, although some of the letters which accompanied the donated pets are difficult now to contemplate.


“We have let Daddy go to fight the Kaiser,” wrote one small girl with feeling, “and now we are sending Jack to do his bit.”


Another lady, with magnificent dignity, wrote: “I have given my husband and my sons, and now that he too is required, I give my dog.”


Richardson understood that his dogs would need to be trained to work under realistic battle conditions. “Shells from batteries at practice were screaming overhead and Army motor lorries passed to and fro. The dogs are trained to the constant sound of the guns and very soon learn to take no heed of them,” wrote one journalist visiting the School.


But it might have been some comfort to those who gave up their beloved pets to know that pupils at the War Dog School were trained with kindness and reward, rather than scorn or punishment.


Any human handlers under instruction at the School who showed “roughness or lack of sympathy with the dogs” was dismissed forthwith.


Preparing for front-line service, the first-aid dogs were trained to ignore dead bodies and to differentiate between an Allied uniform and an enemy one. They could work calmly wearing uncomfortable gas masks, and they were taught to understand a large range of hand signals from their handlers, who were generally recruits who had been gamekeepers, hunt servants and shepherds before the War.


Once qualified and embarked on active service, the dogs were sent out into No Man’s Land under cover of darkness to search for wounded men; they carried medical supplies and water, enabling less badly injured soldiers they found to treat their own wounds. The dogs knew to wait until these men were ready to move, and then lead them with diligent patience through the disorientating, blasted landscape, back to the safety of our lines.


If the dog found an unconscious man, or one who could not move, he or she would run swiftly back to the handler, carrying a scrap of uniform as a sign, and collect a party of stretcher bearers which he would lead swiftly and silently back to the fallen man.


If enemy fire illuminated the scene, the dogs knew to drop to the ground and freeze.

The war dogs found men laying alive but helpless in places which human eyes and ears might well miss.


One Medical Officer wrote with admiration: “They sometimes lead us to bodies we think have no life in them, but when we bring them back to the doctors… always find a spark.”


The dogs were even trained, on finding a soldier so close to death that any further help would come too late, to stay with him, to lay down next to him, offering companionship and comfort at the bitter end. They were known as mercy dogs.


A chap called Oliver Hyde wrote a book while the War was still in progress about the War Dogs; he concludes beautifully:


“To the forlorn and despairing wounded soldier, the coming of the Red Cross dog is that of a messenger of hope.


Here at last is help, here is first aid. [The soldier] knows that medical assistance cannot be far away, and will be summoned by every means in the dog’s power.


As part of the great Red Cross Army of mercy, he is beyond price.”

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