World War I ended after 1,926 days of hostilities. The numbers for total loss of life are almost beyond comprehension, yet every war has its heroes, those larger than life soldiers, but today I’d like to discuss the other heroes — the ones that remain forgotten, unknown and unsung.
Sergeant Stubby, a pit-bull/terrier mix, served with distinction with the 102nd Infantry, Yankee Division. He ‘enlisted’ when a group of Connecticut men he befriended on the Yale campus stowed him aboard the SS Minnesota. Stubby saw action in seventeen battles in France, was wounded twice, once by German shrapnel and then gas. Stubby risked his life to locate wounded soldiers for medics in No Man’s Land. He was purported to be able to distinguish the sounds of incoming artillery shells from gas shells or canisters before they landed and he’d gallop and bark a certain way so the men were forewarned. He is credited with capturing one German prisoner. Stubby is the first animal soldier the U.S. military awarded the rank of sergeant.
Three U.S. presidents, Wilson, Harding and Coolidge, and numerous parades honored Sergeant Stubby. The sergeant would wear a coat on special occasions, made for him by the grateful women of Chemin des Dames, his first battle in France. Pinned to his chamois coat Stubby wore the numerous medals that the French and American governments had awarded him. Private John Robert Conroy, Stubby’s human, had decided to attend Georgetown University after the war. While “Jack the Bulldog” has been the official Georgetown mascot since 1962 and “Handsome Dan,” the official bulldog mascot for Yale since 1889, Stubby was the precedent for the Hoya. He would take center field and play with the football during halftime festivities. Sergeant Stubby passed away in 1926. Sergeant Stubby has his own brick at the World War I Memorial in Kansas City. His remains are on display at The Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibit at the Smithsonian.
Rags is a lesser-known canine hero of The Great War. Another mixed-breed terrier, Rags served the U.S. 1st Infantry Division as a messenger dog, relaying messages from headquarters to the front line. Rags, like Stubby, could hear well. Rags would drop to the ground and cover his ears or claw the ground. The men would comprehend this as incoming artillery. Rags was also known for seeking out the best food in the mess hall. Wherever he was stationed he would tour the mess halls and infirmaries to cheer up the men. The men would give him treats and leave out a water bowl for him. He also put his life at risk. He carried messages in his collar through enemy territory, where human runners were often cut down by enemy fire. During the horrific Meuse-Argonne Campaign Rags would deliver a critical message after being wounded, gassed, and left partially blind. Unfortunately, his human, Private James Donovan, a signals-communications soldier, did not survive the war. Donovan had trained Rags to salute his superiors during military ceremonies. Both Donovan and Rags had been wounded and invalided out of the war, returning stateside. Major Raymond W. Hardenberg adopted Rags after Private Donovan died from the effects of the gas attack. Rags’s exploits had become known and, like Stubby, he was feted in parades. Generals and politicians sought to have their pictures taken with him. He was buried with military honors in Silver Springs, Maryland. His gravestone reads: RAGS, WAR HERO, 1st DIVISION MASCOT, WW I, 1916-1936.
The Great War used thousands of carrier pigeons as messengers for their unerring ability to find their destinations. The most famous bird of the war was thought to be a he and discovered to be a she posthumously. Cher Ami (French for a male ‘dear friend’) was presumed a Black Check homing pigeon. She was, in fact, a Blue Check hen. A gift from the British to the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France, she served at the Battle of Verdun; but her most famous combat mission came in October 1918, when she saved lives in the Battle of the Argonne. The men of the 77th Infantry Division, pinned down by the Germans and taking on friendly fire, had failed twice to communicate their position because two of their pigeons had been shot down. Cher Ami was their last hope.
The men had no food or water and ammunition was running low. The Germans saw Cher Ami released and they fired on her. She was shot down initially but she resumed flight, covering the 25 miles to headquarters in an hour. Reinforcements came. Of the 500 men trapped, only 194 survived. Needless to say, Cher Ami became the hero of the 77th. But, Cher Ami was gravely wounded with one leg dangling, partially blinded, and shot through the chest. Medics would work hours on her, amputating one leg, replacing it later with a wooden prosthetic. She was still unwell. General John Pershing personally escorted her to the ship that returned her to the United States, where she would later succumb to her wounds. The U.S. Department of Service adopted her as its mascot. The French government awarded her the Croix de Guerre Medal with a palm Oak Leaf Cluster. Cher Ami was later inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931. She joins Sergeant Stubby The Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibit at the Smithsonian.
Eight to ten million horses died in World War I: some from neglect, overwork; and others, from combat, from ridiculous charges toward barbed wire and the waiting enemy. A story from a cavalry veteran at a pub inspired Michael Morpurgo’s book War Horse. There were many equine heroes. Bill Cotgrove of the Royal Field Artillery recalls his comrade Alfie. Alfred Henn of the Warwickshire Royal Horse Artillery remembers Nelson, a horse he had who had lost an eye. Reading about the conditions for the horses is truly heartbreaking since they were moving targets for the Germans and worked to death as they moved cannons into position. More gruesome and disrespectful was that the caretaker for the horse, upon the death of his charge, had to cut off the hoof in order to prove to his superior that the animal had died and not run off.
Sadly, the horse would become a pack animal because tanks replaced cavalry. That notwithstanding, the most famous cavalry charge in World War I occurred near the Avre River in northern France in 1918. Canadian General ‘Galloper Jack’ Seely would ride Warrior, a horse known for steel nerves under artillery fire, and 1,000 horses against the Germans at Moreuil Woods. Attrition was high on both sides, but the psychological victory belonged to Seely. Warrior, already tested in battle, was the horse the Germans could not kill. Warrior would die in 1941. In the war’s final days, the surviving horses were slated for slaughter, but Secretary of War Winston Churchill reacted with such fury that the Ministry of Shipping hired out extra vessels to repatriate the horses.
The unlikeliest of war heroes were invertebrates. The garden slug, limax maximus — thanks to Dr. Paul Bartsch at the Smithsonian — mustered with American troops. Often ensconced in a shoebox, needing little food and certainly silent, the garden slug proved invaluable in detecting gas attacks down to parts per million in the air, just at the right level where it became dangerous to humans. When Private Slug clammed up, the men scrambled for their gas masks. The humble slug also enabled the infantry to advance faster because wearing gas masks all the time had slowed down the troops. In the race to develop better poison gas, British scientists experimented on apes. Upon hearing the news of the Armistice, drunken guards at the military research facility Porton Down released the apes: they proceeded to wreak havoc on the locals until they were recaptured.
World War I ended the horse’s career in cavalry. Until wireless communication had improved, the pigeon proved invaluable. The loyal dog, not only a loyal companion, proved to be fearless warrior. In World War II, Chips the dog (photo taken by Herson Whitley) saved his comrades by jumping into an enemy machine-gun pit and attacked the enemy. He was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart, but those awards were revoked later because the U.S. military would not recognize non-human valor. Today, when a member of the police canine unit is killed in the line of duty, all policemen and often many others from around the country attend the funeral. The Protect Police K-9 organization in Arizona recognizes and lists their fallen officers.
In companionship, in service, and in death, all of these animals have demonstrated ultimate love, lasting nobility, and unstinting patriotism because they, too, as President Lincoln said, have given the full measure.