At first, it sounds like a particularly far-fetched episode of Lassie.
A dog, you say, carrying first aid supplies through the whizzing bombs and flying bullets of no man’s land? And all to reach and save wounded soldiers? It sounds preposterous. But it’s true – every word of it.
The story may not be well known, but during the First World War the Red Cross did indeed use specially trained dogs to go and help stricken soldiers on the battlefield.
The story of the Great War dogs began with Major Edwin Richardson, a former soldier whose family had always ‘had a way with dogs’.
The canny Richardson recognised – way before anyone else – that our canine friends could potentially play a useful role during a war, and spent years perfecting his training techniques.
But progress wasn’t smooth. When the First World War broke out, the British Army initially refused his offer of help. (The Red Cross, however, was much more canny and gratefully took a number of specially trained hounds.)
Once the dogs started producing results, the Army quickly realised its mistake and asked Richardson to set up an official training school for war dogs. The four-legged first aiders had arrived.
So, you’re probably wondering: how do you train a dog (normally a skittish creature) to work calmly on a raging battlefield? The answer, unsurprisingly, is: with a lot of hard work.
Richardson quickly realised that all the animals would have to be trained under realistic battle conditions.
A visiting journalist at his training school recounted: “Shells from batteries at practice were screaming overhead, and army motor lorries passed to and fro. The dogs are trained to the constant sound of the guns and very soon learn to take no heed of them.”
Realism was all-important. Richardson even paid unemployed locals to go and lie ‘injured’ in the woods so the trainee pooches could practice finding them.
The level of sophistication in the dogs’ training was jaw-dropping. They were trained to ignore dead bodies. They could understand a huge range of hand signals. They uncomplainingly wore restrictive gas masks.
Critically, they were also taught to distinguish between British military uniforms and those of the enemy. (After all, nobody wanted them leading a search party to an injured but still-armed German soldier.)
It was a long and exhaustive process, but worth it. Because once the dogs were fully trained, what they achieved on the battlefield was incredible.
Nose for trouble
As soldiers lay injured or dying out in no man’s land, the dogs were sent out under cover of darkness. Carrying harnesses filled with medical supplies and small canteens of water, they searched out their own troops. Lightly injured men could then treat their own injuries and be guided back to their own trench.
If a soldier was unconscious or unable to move, however, the dog would run back to its handler carrying a cap, glove or torn scrap of clothing as evidence.
The resourceful pooch would then silently lead a stretcher party straight back to the victim, still in pitch darkness, right under the enemy’s collective nose. (Each hound was taught to ‘freeze’ on the ground if hostile fire lit up the sky.)
According to war medics, the Red Cross dogs saved many lives. They were especially useful when working with search parties in hostile territory, because their keen noses would locate wounded soldiers in thickets and bushes who otherwise might have been missed.
Their heightened senses brought another priceless benefit. One surgeon recalled: “They sometimes lead us to bodies we think have no life in them, but when we bring them back to the doctors…always find a spark. It is purely a matter of their instinct, [which is] far more effective than man’s reasoning powers.”
Not many people will have come across Oliver Hyde’s book, The Work of the Red Cross Dog on the Battlefield, written in 1915.
But in this long-forgotten book, a paean to the bravery of the daring canines, the author captures perfectly the value of the First World War’s most unlikely group of heroes.
“To the forlorn and despairing wounded soldier, the coming of the Red Cross dog is that of a messenger of hope. Here at last is help, here is first aid. [The soldier] knows that medical assistance cannot be far away, and will be summoned by every means in the dog’s power.
“As part of the great Red Cross army of mercy, he is beyond price.”
Read more of our blogs about World War One.