Photo Source: imef.marines.mil
(Pictured Above: Luca, a 12 year old retired Marine Corps dog and recipient of the Dicken medal for military service in 2016)
Throughout history, we have honored soldiers and warriors across civilizations for the sacrifices they make for their respective nations. We devote holidays, memorials, and medals to honor those who gave their time, and sometimes lives, in times of war. Animals have played an integral part in saving soldiers’ lives and giving their time and service to the war cause.
Animals have been a part of war since ancient history. One of the earliest records we have of animals participating in wars were of horses on ancient battlefields. Horses weren’t only used to maneuver through the battlefield—they also were trained for up close combat, trained to bite and kick their opponents (A Grave Interest). Dogs were also war animals since ancient times. They were guards, trackers, and fighters. In the 20th century, they were also important messengers, and they still serve in the military even today. Pigeons were popular messenger carriers in the World Wars. They had a 95% success rate, especially since radios did not always work in battlefield trenches. In one interesting case, Canadian soldiers in World War I had a goat in their ranks (Devon Museum). At first seen as only a mascot, Sgt. Billy would be remembered as a war hero for saving 3 of his comrades by ramming them out of a way of a shell blast. He was also remembered for getting arrested for eating military equipment.
While ancient war animals were immortalized in art, it wasn’t until the World Wars in the 20th century that there is any record of official medals of honor for the animals that served their country. In 1943, the People’s Dispensary of Sick Animals (PDSA) instituted the Dickin Medal to honor the animals who served valiantly in battle (PDSA). The Dickin Medal was named after the found of the PDSA, Marie Dickin. Since 1943, the Dickin Medal has been awarded to 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses, and 1 cat. In another case in World War I, messenger pigeon Cher Ami (French for “Dear Friend”) was given the French Croix de Guerre war medal for traveling 25 miles through an active battlefield to let headquarters know that a battalion was trapped behind enemy lines. Cher Ami lost its leg in the war, so the war medics fashioned him a wooden one after the fact.
In recent news, the the Angels without Wings charity, in conjunction with the Marine Corps, awarded animals official medals of honor on Capitol Hill (Washington Post). The awards were delivered to five dogs, two pigeons, and one horse, some delivered posthumously. For instance, one of the war pigeons, GI Joe, was honored for saving at least 100 allied soldiers in World War II by delivering a message to a place over 20 miles away in 20 minutes. Interest in giving war animals the honor of a war medal after Conan, a Belgian Malinois, was injured while helping to take down the Islamic State leader in Syria. Veterans petitioned for the dog to receive a purple heart, but the Pentagon denied it on the grounds that Conan wasn’t a human. In response, the Angels without Wings charity and Marine Corps came up with these awards so that the animals who served valiantly in the army could be honored. The medals are called "Animals in War & Peace Medal of Bravery."
War has been a part of the human condition for centuries, and animals have also played their role alongside soldiers. They have saved many human lives throughout history, and since the World Wars, we have also taken it upon ourselves to honor the service of the animals that have done valiant feats in the field of battle. As we honor those who have served in battle, it is also apt that we honor the non-humans who donated their time to service as well.