RSPCA pays tribute to animals used in war

Special service to be held at London Memorial

RSPCA workers will take part in a special memorial service, organised by Dogs Trust, at the Animals in War Memorial in Park Lane on 9 November in remembrance of the vital part played in both world wars by animals and the charity’s staff. 

Chief executive Gavin Grant will say some words of remembrance and the charity’s chief inspectorate officer Kevin Degenhard will lay a wreath at 11am.

The roles of animals in the wars are inevitably overshadowed by the human cost of the conflicts, but their contribution should not be forgotten.  Nor should that of the 23 RSPCA staff members who lost their lives in both world wars.

Hundreds of thousands of horses, mules, pigeons, dogs and other animals were lost. They carried supplies, ammunition, communications and even detected mines.  Even cats were valued by our servicemen and performed appreciated roles as rat-catchers, but also offering a therapeutic presence and a sense of security and calm to those in the trenches and at sea. 

More unusual animals used included elephants, camels, dolphins to lay mines at sea and mongooses used to detect land mines.

At one point in the First World War there were reportedly over a million horses being used to haul gun carriages and supplies across all the battle fronts in a war of which they had no understanding.

The RSPCA was 90 years old by the start of the First World War and had only one clinic and animal home in Islington (the first animal hospital was built in Liverpool in 1917), but raised money to build four hospitals to help animals injured in the war. 

RSPCA staff enlisted in the Army Veterinary Corps (AVC)* and the Society managed to raise £250,000 (the equivalent of £12,747,500) for veterinary supplies to help alleviate the suffering of horses on the frontline and to equip 206 animal ambulances.

In total, over two and half million animals passed through the hospitals between 1914 and 1918, with two million of these being made healthy and made available for further service.   In France alone, the AVC treated 735,000 injured horses.

The RSPCA set up a Sick & Wounded Horses Fund and held a flag day in London in 1917 which raised over £3,000.  This was continued after the war as the London Joint Animal Flag Day.

The RSPCA also helped to bring soldiers’ dogs home after the war.

In 1932, the Prince of Wales dedicated the RSPCA Memorial Dispensary for Animals in Kilburn, north-west London to the memory of those animals lost in the 1914-1918 war.

During the Second World War RSPCA inspectors risked their lives carrying out animal rescues on British soil. Entire streets would be evacuated due to bombing with stricken owners having to leave their animals and pets behind. The inspectors bravely entered the cordoned zones and at least 100,000 animals were saved in this way**.

Between 1939 and 1945, the RSPCA rescued more than 256,000 animals and treated more than a million.  By 1944 the RSPCA had established 734 animal rescue centres to deal with the casualties and sick animals.  Eleven RSPCA clinics were bombed.

Gavin Grant said:  “Animals have loyally served man in peace and war. At this time of year we take the opportunity to thank them for their loyalty and courage and to remember the fallen.

We remember those animals and birds which served as messengers and transporters as well as mascots, friends and companions to our fellow men and women in peril, afraid, wounded and dying in the services and at home.”

In 2004, HRH the Princess Royal opened the Animals in War Memorial in Hyde Park (right). With its inscription ‘They had no choice’ the monument serves as a powerful and moving monument to the animals that served, suffered and died alongside the British, Commonwealth and Allied forces in the wars and conflicts of the 20th century.

Staff from the RSPCA will gather at the Animals in War Memorial at 11am on Friday 9 November along with animals and staff from various other animal charities.

RSPCA staff will also be participating in the Cenotaph service on Sunday 11 November, with a wreath being laid by Chief inspector Lee Hopgood and 24 officers taking part in the parade.

*to become the Royal Army Veterinary Corps in 1918   

Notes to editors

**The animals rescued after air raids included 182 horses, 687 cattle, 599 sheep, 182 pigs, 1276 chickens and countless cats and dogs

Although the use of horses is limited to mainly ceremonial duties in today’s armed forces, other animals, such as highly trained dogs are still vital to the efforts of the British services today. 

The Army’s 1st Military Working Dog Regiment, for example, comprises around 200 dogs which work alongside 284 soldiers and officers in counter insurgency and improvised explosive device (IED) detection; searching and helping to clear routes, buildings and vehicles in Afghanistan and helping to guard and patrol key installations to assist and enhance security.

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