Best Defense

Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week: Red Cross dogs of WWI

By Rebecca Frankel Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent The war dogs of WWI were quite remarkable. They were trained to search the battlefield or in the trenches and pick out who among the men were wounded who were dead. The dogs were trained to make their search at night, under the cover of dark, unattended, ...

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By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent

The war dogs of WWI were quite remarkable. They were trained to search the battlefield or in the trenches and pick out who among the men were wounded who were dead. The dogs were trained to make their search at night, under the cover of dark, unattended, navigating the terrain quickly and soundlessly. Barking to alert could potentially draw enemy fire, so if the dogs found a wounded man, they knew to pull off a piece of cloth or a loose helmet and carry it back to their handlers so a rescue attempt could be made. The handler would then leash the dog and follow as the dog led him back to the wounded man. They were so incredibly well-trained and so committed to their task that these dogs weren’t deterred or distracted by the offer of food or company. They saved many soldiers, though perhaps not as many Americans as they might have — the United States was woefully behind other countries in utilizing dogs during WWI and had to make do by borrowing the medic dogs of their allies. It’s estimated that there were upwards of 10,000 Red Cross dogs used during WWI, and they’re credited with saving thousands of lives over the course of the war.

The stories that came out of this time are particularly harrowing and it’s more than just the hearthside story-telling cadence in which they’re told. One of the more comprehensive books about this time was drafted by Sgt. Theo F. Jager, titled Scout, Red Cross and Army Dogs: A Historical Sketch of Dogs in the Great War and a Training Guide for the Rank and File of the United States Army.

In it, he relays a story from the front (also found on this most excellent blog, Dog Law Reporter, which is a true cornucopia of all things canine):

…Lieutenant von Wieland led a party of men in an attack on the Russian trenches. Seeing the task hopeless on account of the Russian fire, he, wounded, sent back the men who had set out with him and lay there in the blood and muck and filth of the battlefield: The Russian fire was so murderous that no one dared bring him in. Presently a dark form bounded from the German trenches, rushed to Lieutenant von Wieland’s side, grasped his coat between his teeth and, foot by foot, dragged him to safety. Once, but only for a moment, did he loosen his hold, and that was when a bullet creased him from shoulder to flank. The blood gushed from the wound, but the dog took a fresh hold and finished his job at the edge of the trench where willing hands lifted the lieutenant down to safety. They had to lift the dog down, too, because just then a bullet broke both his forelegs.

I found the above photo of "a cigarette-smoking allied soldier bandag[ing] the paw of a Red Cross medic-dog in Belgium, 1917" on one of my favorite Facebook photo collectives. War-dog bonus: I also discovered, just today, this video of rescue dogs being trained to find wounded men. I can’t speak to its authenticity, but it’s fascinating to watch.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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