- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent
“Rags took a kind of bow and licked his chops again.” -The NY Times, November 4, 1930
Last week, in our inaugural post in the Wardog series, we visited a brave bomb-sniffing dog who patrols the roads in Afghanistan. This week I thought we’d take a step back in time to one of the first, and most beloved, wardogs.
On March 22, 1936 a lengthy obituary ran in the New York Times: “Rags, Dog Veteran of War, Is Dead at 20; Terrier That Lost Eye in Service is Honored.” The article goes on for 16 paragraphs recounting the heroic escapades and brushes with death this wardog faced during his stint of service:
The dog was adopted by the men of the First, played with them and fought — in the only way he could — beside them. He underwent heavy fire in the Meuse-Argonne campaign. He sped messages through shell-studded, gas-hung sectors. He became a personality in the division, a symbol of courage and of good luck. Apocryphal stories sprang up about him, but there was generally a generous basis of fact for the yarns.”
It was not the first time the little Scotch-Irish terrier called Rags would get mentioned in the prominent paper, nor would it be his last — subsequent articles about Rags’s final resting place were published in the days following his death.
The scrappy Rags was always loyal to the soldier who found him as a “gutter puppy” in Paris, Private Jimmy Donovan, followed him any and everywhere, including the front lines of WWI battle. War-dog legend has it that Donovan trained Rags — whose job was to run messages attached to his collar back and forth when shellfire made communication wires impossible — to discern American gunfire from that of the enemy. He led medics to wounded men in the field through fog and gunfire. It was also said that Rags learned to use his superior canine ears to listen for the sound of incoming shell fire, flattening himself to the ground in anticipation of a hit alerting his unit to danger.
More harrowing still is the tale of how Rags lost the sight of his right eye. It was in the forest of Argonne, the devoted pair had just successfully delivered a communique revealing the location of German artillery when the enemy attacked:
Rags and Donovan were wounded and gassed together, during the peak of the Meuse-Argonne drive. The dog was badly cut, and fumes destroyed the sight of his left eye.”
Rags’s gasmask was displaced by the blast (I know — he was wearing a gas mask?). Like all great stories the details of this account vary, at least among the ones I was able to find. (Other sources say Rags lost his eye to stray shrapnel.) And though I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet, Rags’s life story, including the sad end to his relationship with Donovan who died in 1919, is well-documented in a book published in 1930 by Jack Rohan called Rags: The Story of a Dog That Went to War. Copies appear to be limited and paperbacks run about $35, should you want to read more of this sweet wardog.