Although most people love and respect all creatures great and small, and are disgusted by all wars great or small, the cold hard truth is that animals played a significant role in more wars than we’d care to list. That list includes the battles depicted in 1864: Denmark’s War, now available on SBS On Demand, which make up what was known as the Second Shleswig War.
Horses (Denmark, The Second Shleswig War)
Of all of Earth’s animals, those magnificent creatures known as horses have fallen in war more than any other.
This was no exception in Denmark’s War, where Danish horses suffered as much as the men; not merely in taking intentional or stray bullets, but in war-weariness. Like the overly nationalistic men who willingly ran into battle, no matter the terrain or weather, these horses eventually found it difficult to stand, so weary from the campaign that they were unable to carry their loads. The snow and ice was so thick that soldiers would dismount and lead their horses at a snail’s pace.
Not many of these reliable creatures made it out alive, but the ones that did played a part in getting their riders home in relative safety.
Sgt Bill the goat (Canada, WWI)
In a move that sounds more like the antics of an American frat house, a train full of Canadian soldiers smuggled their mascot, a former cart-pulling goat, onto the front lines. These soldiers may have grown attached to the farm animal, but they never could have imagined that Sgt Bill would save three human lives by pushing the trio into a trench, saving them from an exploding shell. Not only that, but being wounded several times wasn’t enough to keep Bill down. He survived the war, partaking in a big parade in Germany wearing sergeant stripes.
The goat was reunited with its owner, and lived out the rest of its life with a fantastic story to bleat to neighbouring goats.
Rags the terrier (America, WWI)
A dog’s loyalty to man is almost undeserved. The devotion and affection a canine shows to its owner is one of life’s purest pleasures, and no pesky Great War can break that bond.
In Paris, an AWOL American soldier named James Donovan came across the little furball and used the fact that he'd been looking after “Rags” as an excuse to explain his absence. The ruse worked, and Rags won over the platoon, becoming their official mascot. While Donovan planned to keep Rags hidden away from the front lines, the loyal dog would always track down its new owner, who'd been sent back to the trenches. Since it was clear Rags wasn’t going anywhere, Donovan trained the dog to deliver messages, then discovered its keen sense of hearing picked up the sound of oncoming artillery before soldiers had any idea.
Returning from the war, Rags lived on until the age of 20 — no doubt a reward for offering up its life on a daily basis.
Wojtek the bear (Poland, WWII)
Despite the fact that we’ve already covered wounded goats and dogs, there’s something a little off about this Persian bear cub’s presence in the British Army’s training camp in the Middle East. While Wojtek may have fit in with the soldiers - drinking beer, roughhousing and taking human showers - once the unit was deployed to Europe, the Poles took him along.
During the Battle of Monte Cassino, Corporal Wojtek of the artillery supplies unit spent every day, all day, loading 100-pound boxes of artillery into vehicles until the bloodshed was done. The unit honoured the beast by redesigning their badge logo to feature Wojtek carrying ammunition.
Wojtek ended up in Edinburgh Zoo until his death in the early '60s.
Tirpitz the pig (Ireland, WWI)
Initially a passenger of the Dresden, a German Warship in 1914, intended to be killed and fed to soldiers, Tirpitz survived its owner’s sea-slog with Royal Navy cruiser HMS Glasgow, escaping the sinking ship and swimming over to the opposite side.
Once upon the Glasgow, the crew forgot about bacon and adopted the hog as a mascot. They named him after a German admiral and eventually awarded him the Iron Cross for bravery. Tirpitz’s stuffed head remains mounted at the Imperial War Museum in London.
Watch 1864: Denmark’s War on SBS On Demand. Start with the first episode right here: