More than 16 million animals have served in World War 1 from 1914 to 1918. These war animals who have been used for transportation, companionship, and communication have served, fought, and died alongside our troops and most, if not all of them, just died in secrecy together with the unsung heroes who have been completely forgotten.
On 24 February 2019, Australia officially marked the National Day for War Animals or the Purple Poppy Day to commemorate the service and sacrifices these war animals have paid. The celebration of Purple Poppy Day also advocates that the services of the war animals must be seen as equal to that of human services.
What does the Purple Poppy symbolise?
Due to the unique capabilities of animals to undertake challenges and duties that are beyond the capacity of a human being, these animals have been brought and used in the war and served as carriers, messengers, and companions of the soldiers.
Unfortunately, most, if not all, of these animals have breathed their last breath in the very same battlefield they have been brought in.
The Australian War Animal Memorial Organisation (AWAMO) has introduced the Purple Poppy, previously referred to as "Animal Poppy", to Australia in 2013 with the main idea of wearing the Purple Poppy alongside the Red Poppy to remind everyone of the great sacrifice both humans and animals have given during wartime.
Furthermore, The Australian War Animal Memorial Organisation (AWAMO) has successfully initiated the first official Australian war animal memorial in the heart of the WWI battle fields and marked 24 February as Australia's Official National War Animal Day.
What animals served and died in the war?
Prior to World War 1, battlefields were mainly invaded by cavalry forces (soldiers who fought on horseback) but when the new war weapons were introduced, such as machine guns, the journey of the cavalries have become more difficult, thus they started to use horses and camels to carry people and supplies.
Apart from war horses and camels, the Australian Imperial Force in World War 1 also used other animals such as pigeons, dogs, donkeys, canaries, cats, and mules. Each of these animals has a particularly important role during the war.
The Australian Imperial Force mainly used horses to carry heavy loads up to 120 kgs, depending on their capability. The supplies these war horses carry mainly include food, beddings, clothing, rifles, and ammunition; also included are the rider, saddle and horse tack.
The Australian government particularly chose to acquire the Waler Horses due to the fact that they have a high tolerance for lack of water and food as well as extreme stress which is very common during the war. Normally, a horse would need 30 litres of water in a day, but during the war, these Waler Horse went up to 60 hours without any water intake.
Additionally, their medium yet tough built are also ideal to carry heavy loads and they are suited to fast walks especially in deserts.
Apart from being used as supply carriers, the war horses were also utilised to deliver messages, carry the wounded members of the Force, and to pull ambulance wagons and heavy war weapons.
The ability of camels to endure long walks in extremely hot conditions without enough water supply made them the ideal war animals to serve as a means of transport and exploration.
Similar to the roles of war horses, camels were also often used as ambulances to carry the wounded members of the force in a cacolet attached to their saddles as well as transport some heavy-duty supplies from the ports to the military camps.
The Arabian Camel or the Dromedary which is the most commonly used type of camel has the ability to carry up to 145 kgs of weight while travelling over 40km a day, thus the camels’ great contribution during the war.
Aside from four-legged war animals, the Purple Poppy also commemorates the feathered victims of the war. Though small, pigeons have truly made great contributions as war animals. Due to their ability to fly furiously over long distances, pigeons were sent to frontlines to deliver messages especially in pressing situations that require urgency.
The papers where the messages were written were enclosed in a container attached to the pigeons’ legs. Alternatively, they would have a securely tied small pouch onto their backs.
Aside from their capability to fly fast over long distances, pigeons also have strong “homing” instincts, so they easily find their way home after the message has been delivered. However, this does not make them resilient to harm. Sometimes, these pigeons would be shot and killed by the enemy, die of extreme exhaustion, or fall off due to bad weather.
Back in the war, dogs wore multiple hats— from being a messenger, a means for transport, to saving the lives of the allies. Primarily, dogs’ keen sense of smell and hearing was used to find wounded allies and to spot an enemy. Navigating through trenches and battlefield in a very subtle yet quick manner is also one of their skills, thus these dogs were also used as ground messengers.
Because of their undeniable strength, the Force also used these war animals to help carry heavy war equipment.
In the modern era, dogs are referred to as man’s best friend because of their unique bond and connection to humans. But, did you know that back in the war, dogs have also been used as pets and companions especially during the time of great distress and they continued to provide comfort and friendship even after the soldiers’ deployment.
End of the war
Due to Australia’s strict quarantine law that prohibits war animals to be brought home to avoid the spread of possible diseases, Australians had to make several decisions on what to do with these animals after the war.
Very few succeeded with their attempt to bring small animals back home with them, while most resorted to selling the war animals, particularly war horses, to locals and the British Indian Army.
While the Purple Poppy Day is officially celebrated on 24 February, everyday is an opportunity to remember them and acknowledge their ultimate sacrifices.
*All photos were sourced from https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/