Dogs had a vital part to play in World War One as the complexes of trenches spread throughout the Western Front. It is estimated that by 1918, Germany had employed 30,000 dogs, Britain, France and Belgian over 20,000 and Italy 3000. America, at first, did not use dogs except to utilise a few hundred from the Allies for specific missions. Later, after a chance stowaway, the USA produced the most decorated and highly-ranked service dog in military history, Sergeant Stubby.
Lots of dog breeds were used during World War One, but the most popular type of dogs were medium-sized, intelligent and trainable breeds. Two in particular were used because of their superior strength, agility, territorial nature and trainability; Doberman Pinscher’s and GSDs, both native to Germany. Doberman’s were used because they are both highly intelligent and easily trainable, and possess excellent guarding abilities. Being of slight frame and extremely agile, their dark coat allowed them to slip undetected through terrain without alerting the enemy. They were employed most frequently in Germany. German Shepherd’s were used also because of their strength, intelligence and trainability, being eager to please their masters. Other breeds associated with WWI were smaller breeds such as terriers, who were most often employed as ‘ratters’; dogs trained to hunt and kill rats in the trenches.
Roles and functions of military dogs
Military dogs in World War One were positioned in a variety of roles, depending on their size, intelligence and training. Generally, the roles fell into the category of sentry dogs, scout dogs, casualty dogs, explosive dogs, ratters and mascot dogs.
These dogs were patrolled using a short leash and a firm hand. They were trained to accompany usually one specific guard and were taught to give a warning signal such as a growl, bark or snarl to indicate when an unknown or suspect presence was in the secure area such as a camp or military base. Dobermans have traditionally been used as sentry dogs and are still widely used today as guard dogs.
These dogs were highly trained and had to be of a quiet, disciplined nature. Their role was to work with soldiers on foot patrolling the terrain ahead of them. These dogs were useful to the military because they could detect enemy scent up to 1000 yards away, sooner than any man could. Instead of barking and thus drawing attention to the squad, the dogs would stiffen raise its hackles and point its tail, which indicated that the enemy was encroaching upon the terrain. Scout dogs were widely used because they were highly efficient in avoiding detection of the squad.
Casualty or ‘Mercy’ dogs were vital in World War One. Originally trained in the late 1800’s by the Germans, they were later utilised across Europe. Known as ‘Sanitatshunde’ in Germany, these dogs were trained to find the wounded and dying on battlefields and were equipped with medical supplies to aid those suffering. Those soldiers who could help themselves to supplies would tend to their own wounds, whilst other more gravely wounded soldiers would seek the company of a Mercy dog to wait with them whilst they died.
Dogs were used as messengers and proved to be as reliable as soldiers in the dangerous job of running messages. The complexities of trench warfare meant that communication was always a problem. Field communication systems were crude and there was always the very real possibility that vital messages from the front would never get back to headquarters or vice versa. Human runners were potentially large targets and weighed down by uniforms there was a chance that they would not get through. In the heat of a battle, there was even less of a chance of a runner getting through as the enemy’s artillery was likely to be pounding your frontline and the area behind it. Vehicles were also problematic as they could breakdown or the ‘roads’ could have been reduced to a mushy pulp and travel on them made impossible.
Dogs were the obvious solution to this pressing problem. A trained dog was faster than a human runner, presented less of a target to a sniper and could travel over any terrain. Above all, dogs proved to be extremely reliable if they were well trained. A dog training school was established in Scotland and a recruit from this school traveled over 4000 metres on the Western Front with an important message to a brigade’s headquarters. The dog traveled this distance (war records classed it as “very difficult” terrain) in less than sixty minutes. All other methods of communicating with the headquarters had failed – but the dog had got through.
Dogs also had another role to play on the Western Front. For men trapped in the horrors of trench warfare, a dog in the trenches (whether a messenger dog or not) was a psychological comfort that took away, if only for a short time, the horrors they lived through. It is said that Adolf Hitler kept a dog with him in the German trenches. For many soldiers on any of the sides that fought in the trenches, a dog must have reminded them of home comforts.