How a British colonel altered the battlefields of World War I, and why his crusade still resonates today.
By Rebecca Frankel
In April 1917, in Villers- Bretonneux, northern France, war was raging. The Germans were advancing on the British; a small brigade of Australian soldiers had emerged from the trenches repeatedly to push them back. The enemy captured a strategic position, knocking out all lines of communication, but one member of the Allied forces was able to make it through the heavy shellfire that pounded down on the treacherous seven miles separating the command from the front: a small retriever, a messenger dog named Darkie, who covered that distance in only 55 minutes. Of all the reports sent from the front, Darkie’s was the only one received.
All along the front during the months of heavy fighting, communications were dispatched via messenger dogs. It was dangerous work. One dog was shot; a bullet split his jaw, nearly detaching it. Still, the dog, ironically named Smiler, crossed almost two miles in only 20 minutes. Sulky came close to having her leg cut off. Dick caught shrapnel spray and a bullet. Despite the injuries, his handler reported, he returned in “good spirit.” But shrapnel had also “lodged close to the spine,” the handler later found. “Through all his sufferings the dog carried out his duties cheerfully and most faithfully until he was overtaken by death.”
The list goes on.
What would compel a severely wounded dog to carry on, never retreating in pain or fear, to complete his run and deliver the message he was carrying?
Lt. Col. Edwin Hautenville Richardson ascribed the dogs’ drive to “two qualities which are usually natural to the canine mind…: The affection for a master and the love of reward.” Fostering this admirable behavior, in turn, required two commitments on the part of a handler. First, there was never to be any cruelty or abuse used in training. The second element of the human-dog contract was more elusive, the thing that could overpower any temptation or looming threat: trust.
“[W]hen there is complete understanding and trust between the messenger dog and its keeper, the honourable return of the dog with the message is assured,” Richardson wrote in his 1920 book, British War Dogs: Their Training and Psychology.
In the early 20th century, Richardson was Britain’s foremost authority on dog training and, in all respects, was a man of great faith and perseverance. Not only would he prove to be an unabashed promoter of progressive attitudes toward dogs, but nearly 100 years later, Richardson’s compassionate treatment of his dogs, as well as his practice of reward-based training—which reinforced good behavior and success with joyful attention and a treat or toy—are the models for dog handling today.
Most recently, the value of military dogs in war has become widely recognized (once again), due in part to the events of May 2011, when the media exploded with reports that a dog team had been assigned to the mission that took down Osama bin Laden. Moreover, though dog teams make up relatively small communities in countries’ militaries, dogs were well represented on the ground in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The British, French, Australian, and Czech militaries, for instance, deployed dog teams to Afghanistan. At the height of U.S. involvement in these wars, American dogs alone numbered around 2,500.
Yet now, as these conflicts wind down, military dog teams are being scaled back. Take the U.S. Marine Corps’ ied detection dog (idd) program, started in 2004: It once had roughly 650 deployed dog teams. Now there are about 30 idd dogs in combat theater, and the program will be closed officially by the first quarter of 2015.
For much of Richardson’s career, he was plagued by the British military’s ignorance about the need to maintain, in war and peace, a robust canine force. Today, a similar lack of understanding looms large and an unfortunate cycle is once again repeating itself, one seen in the wake of the world wars, Vietnam, and other conflicts: Dogs prove themselves in combat, but after a war ends, their value is quickly forgotten.
Richardson was a distinctive man. The long straight nose and the full, sculpted mustache below a penetrating gaze made for an expression as imposing as his high-buttoned collar and tie or his neatly pressed uniform. Unfailingly, in each portrait of him, he is holding a lead, and at the other end is a dog—in some images he is accompanied by two, three, or even four of them. Airedale, collie, hound, or mutt, they appeared as distinguished as their master.
Richardson was perhaps unusually sensitive for a military man and, even by today’s standards, a canine-loving eccentric. He believed that dogs were telepathic and could sense disquieted spirits that haunted the living. But when it came to the theories and techniques he employed in their training, he was generations ahead of his time. Although he ultimately would become something of an international celebrity, initially he was unable to stir his own compatriots to get behind his campaign to have dogs employed by the military. If only the British had listened sooner.
"When there is complete understanding and trust between the messenger dog and its keeper, the honourable return of the dog with the message is assured."
When the rumblings of the Great War first shook Europe, Richardson petitioned the British Army to add canines to its ranks. Allies and enemies alike would surely be using their military dogs on the front—he’d seen them with his own eyes. Germany, Italy, Sweden, Russia, and the Netherlands employed well-trained dogs. Richardson argued that war-dog readiness would serve his country, but the War Office could not be swayed. Early in the fighting of 1914, it appeared that Britain, with its age-old admiration for its canines, wanted nothing to do with Richardson’s vision of a battle-ready dog corps.
This was not, in fact, Richardson’s first attempt to install dogs in the military’s ranks. As a young student, he had learned that dogs had fought alongside armies for centuries. He became transfixed by stories of Greek generals using dogs to send messages and by a letter that Napoleon had written to Gen. Auguste-Frédéric-Louis Viesse de Marmont in 1799, advising that he post dogs as sentries before waging a battle in Alexandria, Egypt.
Richardson’s fascination with military dogs eventually developed into a consuming mission. While visiting friends in the Scottish Highlands early in his career, he stumbled across a man who procured collie dogs for the German government. Intrigued, he visited Lechenich and saw how the Germans used dogs bearing the Red Cross insignia, training them to find wounded men in the fields. He was impressed. He picked out a collie—“a good tricolour called Sanita”—and brought her back to the seacoast home in Scotland that he shared with his wife (his equal partner in dog training), their children, and their already large brood of family dogs, including, among others, “military dogs, deerhounds, Irish wolfhounds … Scottish terriers.” This German experience had, as Richardson wrote, “rous[ed] in me an incentive to work harder than ever, so as to ensure that our dogs should be kept in Britain for the use of our own soldiers.”
It was then that Richardson’s commitment to the war-dog cause was cemented. As he and his wife trained messenger dogs and ambulance dogs—recruiting friends, neighbors, and local schoolchildren to play the parts of injured soldiers—his ingenuity was such that there was virtually nothing Richardson couldn’t get the dogs to do.
Richardson’s fellow officers, some of them high-ranking, took note of the dogs and sent reports to the War Office. One general wrote to officials, “Seeing that every foreign Government has already recognised the use of dogs … I am of the opinion that advantage should be taken without delay of Major E.H. Richardson’s knowledge and experience in the matter of breeding and training them, and some military training centre selected for the purpose.” The government was unresponsive.
Why the British military was so reluctant is still not entirely clear, though it was not alone in its early refusal to employ war dogs. The United States, for instance, had long rejected calls for them, most famously turning down an appeal made by Benjamin Franklin in 1755.
Richardson may have been ignored at home, but his reputation soared abroad, extending thousands of miles beyond the rocky shores of the British Isles. During the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, the Russian Embassy in London sent an “urgent wire” to Richardson requesting ambulance dogs, which he provided. In 1907, the Turkish Embassy sought out Richardson; Sultan Abdul Hamid II was “greatly annoyed” by trespassers on his palace grounds. Richardson traveled on the Orient Express to Constantinople with a brigade of his dogs. In 1908, he received a telegram from French Empress Consort Eugénie, who wanted to send an ambulance dog to the Spanish Army, then at war in Morocco. (The queen of Spain was her goddaughter.) So, in the company of a “fine young bloodhound,” Richardson was off to Morocco.
Of his own accord, he traveled to Montenegro in 1910, during the lead-up to the Balkan War, so he could see the “possibilities of the use of dogs in this mountainside warfare.” In 1911, when the Indian government wanted a pair of sentry dogs for a mission to contain an insurgency, Richardson provided two of his “very alert intelligent” Airedales. Later that same year, when Italy went to war with the Turks in North Africa, Richardson traveled to Tripoli to observe the Italian Army’s dogs at work.
These journeys certainly widened Richardson’s understanding of how foreign armies used their dogs and helped him hone his own techniques. But his success with his dogs had less to do with study than with his singular and natural understanding of the animals. He was convinced that dogs were sentient, feeling beings able to reason and act with a set of rudimentary morals. He believed, in short, that dogs had souls. Richardson’s breakthrough achievement (quite possibly unprecedented and certainly unmatched on such a grand scale) was to place the psychology and morality of the animal at the center of his training method.
When Britain declared war in August 1914, it had virtually no dogs on the battlefield. Rather than give up, Richardson gave dogs to the British Red Cross and to other Allied forces. Soon a small contingent of his dogs—sentry dogs, ambulance dogs, and messenger dogs—were on the battlefields proving they were more than worthy soldiers.
All the while, Richardson continued his petition, appealing to anyone who would listen and even writing a letter to the New York Times in 1915 about the successes of Germany, which then had some 6,000 military dogs. “[T]he Germans have recognized the value that dogs were likely to be in battle,” he wrote. “It is a pity that the value of these dogs has not been generally recognized by the French and English Armies.”
"His ingenuity was such that there was virtually nothing Richardson couldn't get the dogs to do."
Finally, in 1916, two years after the war began, came the first request for Richardson’s dogs to join the British at the front lines: An officer in the Royal Artillery wanted dogs to run notes between the battery and his outpost. Richardson sent two Airedales to France: Prince and Wolf. Later, the officer wrote to Richardson about the attack on Vimy Ridge: “All the telephones were broken, and visual signalling was impossible. The dogs were the first to bring through news.”
Where human messengers could get lost in the dark for hours, disoriented and confused, dogs had no difficulty keeping to their assigned courses. They ran faster than their human counterparts, covering the same distance often in half the time of even a sure-footed soldier. “Runners have come in cut and bleeding from barbed wire and other obstacles after having been lost,” reported one British handler. “[D]ogs have come through safely and without delay.”
Once in action, Richardson’s dogs were enthusiastically welcomed by the soldiers. The precedent was set, and the interest in having more dogs was high. Richardson hustled to fill the demand, yet by the summer of 1917, the requests were overwhelming.
Just before the armistice was signed in November 1918, orders had come down that every infantry battalion “in the attack” was to have a messenger dog. For Richardson, this was sweet vindication. As he wrote in British War Dogs, it “set a seal on the work. The long uphill struggle, the open sneers, the active obstruction, the grudging assistance, all was forgotten, in the knowledge that countless men’s lives had been saved and that this fact had now been realized and acknowledged.”
Over the next century, Richardson’s training philosophies would gain a stronger foothold in the dog world, but many of the same skepticisms he and his war dogs faced have persisted. “[N]o one at the War Office, in spite of my often repeated warnings, gave a thought to the preservation of dog-power throughout the land,” Richardson wrote in Forty Years With Dogs. Similarly, as wars end today, there is insufficient interest in keeping war dogs trained and active. As a result, when conflict arrives again, as it inevitably will, dogs will not be at the ready to do work for which they are singularly adept.
The nature of conflicts may have changed over time, but the value of a human life has not. Richardson proved that dogs can save lives. It is a lesson militaries would do well to remember.
Rebecca Frankel is the senior editor for special projects at Foreign Policy and author of War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love.