A brief introduction to First World War

6 Memorials to Animals in the First World War

Millions of animals were used both in warfare and on the home front during the First World War.

The First World War saw the development of industrialised mechanised warfare – machine guns, tanks, and aeroplanes. In addition to this modern technology, millions of animals were used both in warfare and on the home front. They died in their hundreds of thousands.

An estimated six million horses and mules were engaged by the combatants. They hauled food, equipment, ammunition and other supplies for the troops. Tens of thousands of horses and camels were used by cavalry units.

Messenger pigeons played a vital role in communications, relaying messages from the front line to headquarters more reliably than telephone or radio. Dogs carried messages and laid telephone wires. Cats caught rats in the trenches. Canaries and mice were employed to give early warning of toxic fumes when troops were tunnelling underground. On the home front, circus elephants were commandeered for agriculture and haulage.

Many animals, including goats, a fox, monkeys, a pig, a bear, mice, dogs and cats, were kept as pets and mascots by troops and on ships, raising morale and providing comfort during the terrible hardships of war.

Here are some memorials that commemorate the history of animal contribution to the war effort.

1. The Animal War Memorial Dispensary, London

In the 1920s, the RSPCA proposed a memorial to commemorate the animals that had served in the First World War. Funds were raised, and a site was chosen at Hyde Park Corner. But the project stalled in 1925.

The Grade II listed Animal War Memorial Dispensary on Cambridge Avenue, Kilburn, in London, opened in November 1932. © Historic England.

Instead, the RSPCA decided on a more practical commemoration: the Animal War Memorial Dispensary, where, in the words of a contemporary report, ‘the sick, injured or unwanted animals of poor people could receive, free of charge, the best possible veterinary attention, or a painless death.’

Its central bronze relief depicts the working animals of the First World War, and two stone tablets on either side of the door are dedicated to the thousands of animals who died. The building is listed at Grade II.

2. War Horse Blackie’s Grave, Liverpool

Blackie was one of many thousands of Royal Field Artillery (RFA) horses. His rider was Lieutenant Leonard Comer Wall, who had joined up at the outbreak of the war.

The Grade II listed gravestone of Blackie the war horse in Halewood, Liverpool, the original site of the RSPCA’s Horses’ Rest, Hunts Cross. © Karen Falconer.

On 8 June 1917, during the Battle of Messines (2nd Battle of Ypres), they were both hit by flying shrapnel from a German shell.  Leonard was fatally injured. Blackie recovered, although scarred, and served on the Western Front for the duration of the war.

When Lieutenant Wall’s will was read, it was discovered that he bequeathed his medals be buried with his horse. He also asked that Blackie live out his days at the Horses’ Rest, Halewood, Liverpool. Both requests were complied with.

3. Songster the War Horse’s Grave, Loughborough

Songster was mobilised along with other horses in Loughborough’s Market Place on 4 August 1914, the day Britain declared war on Germany.

Songster the war horse’s grave marker. Source: Loughborough Carillon Tower and War Memorial Museum.

Songster was taken to France with the Leicestershire Yeomanry in November 1914 and saw action with Trooper Bert Main in the saddle.

Songster with Trooper Bert Main in France, 1915. Source: Loughborough Carillon Tower and War Memorial Museum.

After the war, most horses were put up for sale in France because it was too expensive for the military to bring them home. But Trooper Main raised enough money to bring Songster back to Leicestershire in 1919.

Songster with war veteran Sgt. Major Harry Poole. Source: Loughborough Carillon Tower and War Memorial Museum.

Songster spent his retirement years on a farm near Loughborough, cared for by Sgt. Major Harry Poole, and making weekly appearances at Loughborough Market.

Once a year, Songster was reclaimed by his old unit, the Leicestershire Yeomantry, for their annual camp. He died on 11 January 1940, aged 40 years, and was buried with his regimental medals.

Songster with members of the Leicestershire Yoemanry at their annual camp in the mid-1930s.Source: Loughborough Carillon Tower and War Memorial Museum.

4. Saint Jude-on-the-Hill, London

In 1926, the Vicar of Saint Jude’s, Basil Bourchier, who as forces’ chaplain in the First World War had seen at first hand the suffering of horses, was offered a bronze of a war horse sculpted by Charles Lutyens, the late father of Sir Edwin Lutyens, the architect of St Judes.

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A commemorative plaque to the horses of the First World War, Saint Jude-on-the-Hill church, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London. Source: Reverend Alan Walker.

The church purchased the bronze and commissioned an accompanying plaque and wooden plinth. The memorial was unveiled on 4 April 1926.

The Lutyens’ horse was later stolen. All that remains today of the original memorial is the plaque.

5. The Dickin Medal

The Dickin medal was instituted by animal welfare pioneer Maria Dickin in 1943, and since then, there have been 65 recipients: 29 dogs, 32 messenger pigeons, three horses and one cat.

An Honorary PDSA Dickin Medal. © PDSA

One such recipient was War Horse Warrior, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for animals posthumously on 2 September 2015.

Warrior served for the whole of the First World War, surviving the battles of the Somme and Passchendaele. Despite injuries (Warrior was dubbed ‘the horse the Germans could not kill’), he survived the war and returned home to the Isle of Wight in 1918, where he lived with his owner, General Jack Seely and his family until he died in 1941, aged 32.

The award was accepted by Brough Scott, grandson of General Seely, on behalf of all animals that served in the war.

Warrior with his owner, General Jack Seely (later Lord Mottistone), painted by Sir Alfred Munnings on the Western Front, 1918. © Canadian War Museum.

6. The Animals in War Memorial, London

The Animals in War Memorial, Brook Gate, Park Lane, London, was created by sculptor David Backhouse and unveiled by HRH The Princess Royal in November 2004.

Animals in War Memorial at Brook Gate, Park Lane, London. © Nicky Hughes.


Further reading

10 comments on “6 Memorials to Animals in the First World War

  1. How lovely to hear that the story of Loughborough’s Songster is being more widely shared!

  2. I love the stories of horses being buried with medals. <3

  3. What a wonderful article – so good to see these memorials and to hear the stories of species who had to go through the horror of war because our species can’t sort things out in a more civilised way. There’s also a memorial to WWII carrier pigeons in a park in Worthing of all places – I suppose cos it was on the coast.

    • Sharyn Farnaby

      There is a memorial to Mary the Pigeon in Exeter. She was awarded the Dickin Medal for service during WW2 and has her own wikipedia page.

  4. Roger Bowdler

    Thank you for this: we think of it as being the first mechanised war, but animals were critical to all sides. Great pictures!

  5. Richard Attridge

    There is a memorial Horse Trough in Lake on the Isle of Wight to remember “The Horses and Dogs who also bore the heat of the day”

  6. Some may find this of interest: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Brooke

  7. These animals look like heroes, and they’re fascinating.

  8. Doug Eaton

    Did you consider including The War Horse Memorial which was erected in Ascot in 2018? This links in with Purple Poppy Day which are worn to honour animals killed in conflict, and occurs on August 23rd each year

  9. I just read your article. I’m from Australia and in 2014, spent a week in Kilburn. Every day we caught the bus at the stop outside the little animal care centre on Cambridge Ave. Such a lovely memorial.
    One of our best known Australian war horses was a ferocious fellow, a seventeen hand Waler stallion, called Bill the Bastard! Only tolerated one rider, Major Michael Shanahan. None of the thousands of horses shipped from Australia returned, with many of them being shot by their riders before they set sail back home, rather than see them misused when left behind.

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