They had no choice.

It was late at night. I was driving along Park Lane, making my way out of central London and towards the M4. On my right, at Brook Gate in Hyde Park, I noticed a large curved stone wall, and what appeared to be some bronze statues. I wasn't entirely certain what the ensemble was, but I had a fair idea. Curved stone walls are frequently used in war memorials, and the bronze statues were of animals. Unfortunately, I couldn't stop to take a closer look, and it was very late when I eventually stumbled through the front door and fell into bed, so I was none-the-wiser. The next morning, running late and undoubtedly irritated by a ladder in my tights, I had forgotten about what I had presumed to be the Animals in War memorial.

Several weeks later something jogged my memory of my late night observation, and I began to investigate. My assumption hadn't been unfounded. It was indeed the memorial dedicated to the animals who served in the conflicts of the twentieth century.

For a nation that ascribes to itself the epithet 'animal lovers', it took until 2004 to erect a monument commemorating the countless animals who served, without option, and often with exceptional courage, in times of war. Every other Commonwealth country had managed it, save Britain. In fact, it was inspired by Jilly Cooper's book Animals in War — a somewhat radical departure from her usual subject matter — and commissioned by the Imperial War Museum. Over all, it took six years and £1.5 million in donations to bring it to fruition, and finally was unveiled on 24 November 2004 by the Princess Royal.

The memorial, by Somerset sculptor David Backhouse, consists of a curved Portland stone wall, 58 feet wide and 55 feet deep, set atop three steps. There is a gap in the wall, towards the right. Wearily climbing the three steps and making their way towards the gap are two bronze mules, one bearing a dismantled canon, the other boxes of ammunition. Beyond the gap stand a bronze horse and dog, relieved of their burdens, looking towards the future. The wall itself is decorated with bas-relief sculptures of images of the different animals that have served in war.

Horses are readily associated with military service: they formed the cavalry, they drew artillery, they were an all-purpose method of transport. In fact, eight million of them — not just specialist war horses, but requisitioned hunters and polo ponies, too — lost their lives during the Great War. Most died from disease, starvation, or exposure. One of man's most loyal servants reduced to shivering bags of skin and bones, chewing on their own rugs for fodder. In the desert and the tropics, where horses were not so suited to the climate or the terrain, camels and elephants were used in their stead. Let's not forget the oxen, the mules, or the donkeys, either, carrying supplies, arms, and the wounded. The mules serving in the jungle in Burma had their vocal cords severed, to ensure that their braying would not betray Allied positions to the enemy.

Dogs also suffered high casualty rates: their sensitivity to smell meant that they were used to search for mines, resulting in injury or death from explosions, or they might have ripped their paws to shreds scrabbling through the rubble of bombed-out buildings, looking for survivors or bodies. There were even para-dogs, dropped behind enemy lines to assist with covert operations.

War isn't just about man against man, supported by animals, though. Sometimes, animals were pitted against other animals. Carrier pigeons were used to deliver crucial messages in both the First and Second World Wars. In an attempt to prevent British pigeons reaching their destinations, German hawks were kept at the Pas de Calais, waiting to attack unwitting winged messengers. Between the hawks, the bullets, and mother nature, some 100,000 pigeons were killed from 1914 to 1918. Of those who survived, some limped home with oil-clogged feathers, shot-away wings, and ripped-open necks. And the difference made by the successful ones was crucial.

Then there were the cats, used to control mice and rat populations on war ships, the dolphins and sea lions deployed to detect mines, and the canaries who would alert sappers to gas.

Last come the glow worms. Yes, glow worms, by whose soft light World War I soldiers would read their maps, before going over the top or launching an attack. 'The glow worms. How often would people remember that? It would become forgotten.' And we mustn't forget; not them, nor anyone nor anything else, that have made unimaginable sacrifices.

Leading the way, unearthing the past, and carrying vital information:


Post Script: On Thursday 24 May 2007 the BBC posted this series of pictures on its website. Weird.

In the night, the soldiers lay
Reading maps as if by day.
Forgetting the help from conscripted worms,
The soldiers charge and top the berms.

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