World War I brought an explosion of dogs to the battlefield. According to an article by The United Stated War Dog Association, Inc., the Germans had 30,000 dogs and the Italians handled 3,000 for their allies, while the British and the French had at least 20,000 dogs serving for them. The U.S. had used dogs as messengers in the Civil War, but when joining the Triple Entente in 1917 to enter WWI, they only had a few sled dogs in Alaska working for them and did not consider them military.
The U.S. had more than enough signals pointing them towards embracing the use of dogs in their militia, yet the signals seemed to go unnoticed. The K-9 Section of Hahn’s 50th Air Police recounts a major signal that was missed in the spring of 1918. The General Headquarters of the American Expeditionary Forces recommended the use of the dogs as sentries, messengers, and draft animals. The proposal suggested establishing training schools in the U.S. and building five kennels within the battle areas, each able to accommodate 200 dogs. It also proposed obtaining 500 dogs from the French every three months for training. After training, each division would be supplied with 288 dogs. Washington reviewed the proposal, only to reject the idea completely. He felt the war would soon be over. Strangely enough, for the remainder of the war, the U.S. borrowed the diligently trained dogs of their allies, the French and the British.
Dogs had been trained as messengers, sentries, ammunition, and food carriers, scouts, sled dogs, draught dogs, guards, ambulance dogs, ratters, Red Cross casualty dogs, and even cigarette dogs. The K-9 Section of Hahn’s 50th Air Police describes some of the more unusual dogs, such as the ratters and cigarette dogs, as well as dogs that were not used after World War I. Terriers were chosen as ratters because their natural instinct to hunt and kill vermin kept the muddy trenches rat free. Small dogs were chosen to be cigarette dogs that brought cigarette cartons to soldiers on the front lines.
Red Cross casualty dogs, also known as Mercy dogs, were first trained by Germans who equipped them with saddlebags of medical supplies. They sought out the wounded and gave comfort to the dying. If they found wounded, they were trained to either carry the short brindle leash in their mouth or to let it hang loose otherwise. Other European countries quickly recognized the value of the Red Cross casualty dog and trained their own. The United States’ Allies’ Red Cross casualty dogs were trained to find the wounded and return to their handler with either the wounded man’s helmet or some other part of his uniform, to indicate to their keeper, that they had located someone. Their importance in the war was because of trench warfare and stagnant front lines and WWI became the last war they were needed.
Even with all the jobs the dogs performed, the U.S. didn’t seem to see the signs that dogs would forever be a part of war. In March 1918, a French infantry company was attacked by Germans. The commanding officer sent three runners to inform headquarters of their position and all were killed. He then sent Patsou, a French messenger dog, who ran through the barrage, and covered 3,000 meters in ten minutes. Reinforcements were sent to save all 48 of the remaining men in Patsou’s entire company.
Another indicator of the value of military dogs was a small dog named Stubby. He regularly watched the soldiers from the 102nd Infantry Regiment train on the campus of Yale University. One solider grew a fondness for the dog and when it was time to ship out to France, he smuggled Stubby aboard. Stubby started as a mascot, but ended his 18 months serving the Americans as Sergeant Stubby. He retired as the only dog to be given the rank of sergeant and the most decorated dog in WWI. Stubby was in newspapers everywhere, but the U.S. was still not convinced about dogs in war.
The value the dogs played was incalculable and the losses were high. The War to End All Wars has many different estimates about the actual number of dogs who perished. The K-9 Section of Hahn’s 50th Air Police found some reports that the Germans lost over 7,000 dogs in total, but the United States Veterinary Corps stated 16,000 battle deaths. Along with the dogs that lost the lives killed in action, were those that lost their lives when the brutalities of war came to a close. France killed 15,000 animals as it demobilized and the animals with Great Britain, the United States, Germany, Italy, and Russia probably faced the same fate.