5 animals that served on battlefields throughout history

An army dog stands up as retiring soldiers salute their guard post before retirement in Suqian, China. (Reuters pic)

Throughout the history of human conflict, animals have played a variety of roles on the battlefield.

From transporting messages and supplies to being mounted by heavily armoured soldiers, animals with a variety of shapes and sizes, have been forced into wars they know nothing about.

With the use of animals on the battlefield verging on animal cruelty, be prepared to shed some tears as you read about innocent animals forced to participate in human carnage.

1. Horses

Elizabeth L Butler’s famous painting, ‘Scotland Forever!’ depicts a charge by the British Royal Scots Grey cavalry regiment at Waterloo. (Wikipedia pic)

These magnificent creatures have long seen military action, more than any other animal.

Mobile and durable, horses were used to carry cargo and riders alike and their speed allowed them to outmanoeuvre or outrun enemies.

When engaged in combat proper, horses were just as dangerous as the armed soldiers atop them, kicking, biting and stomping on command or instinctively.

Initially, horses drew chariots onto battlefields; but chariots were ultimately superseded by soldiers riding the horses themselves.

As guns became commonplace though, cavalry became increasingly vulnerable, though their mobility retained value.

Horses often suffered horrific casualties though; in the 1815 battle of Waterloo alone, some 20,000 horses lost their lives or were maimed beyond recovery.

2. Dogs

As they did in the past, dogs still serve in militaries, defending positions and detecting intruders and danger. (dogsaholic.com pic)

It hurts to know that man’s best friend has followed humanity onto the hellish battlefield.

Excellent trackers with a sense for danger, dogs can fight ferociously as well as be a morale booster to their side.

From the ancient Greeks to the Spanish conquistadors, war dogs have been bred to bring down enemy soldiers, sometimes off horses, and maul or hold them down.

Their relative quickness also meant that they were used to carry messages.

During the First World War, over a million messenger dogs were killed in action.

Rather morbidly, the Soviets in the Second World War tried to use dogs attached with explosives as anti-tank weapons.

Dogs still serve in militaries today, accompanying elite teams as part of the squad, detecting traps and protecting military positions.

3. Pigeons

A trio of pigeons equipped with spy cameras meant to locate enemy positions. (Wikipedia pic)

The same birds you curse for pooping on your car once had an extremely important battlefield role. Their accurate sense of direction and ability to fly long distances at high speeds meant that they were good messengers.

The ability to return to their coops without fail also made them reliable enough for the task.

During wartime, snipers would sometimes shoot them out of the sky to intercept their messages and during the Franco-Prussian War, the Prussians trained hawks to bring French pigeons down.

Other than being messengers, pigeons have also been attached with cameras to try and spy on enemy positions.

With modern communication channels vulnerable to data hacks, perhaps militaries will find some utility in keeping pigeons around.

4. Elephants

War elephants saw much use in China, India, Southeast and Central Asia as well as the Middle East and North Africa. (elitereaders.com pic)

Little surprise that these intimidating but intelligent animals would eventually be used to fight and die for bloodthirsty humans.

With thick skin, deadly tusks and a crushing weight, soldiers who had never seen an elephant in their lives would quake in their boots as the ground shook with the elephant’s approach.

Army commanders would use elephants as mounts, their good vantage point giving them a good view of the battlefield.

Some elephants carried archers, who would use the same vantage point to fire down on enemies below.

What is scarier than a lumbering elephant? An elephant charging at full speed in your direction.

Training elephants was no easy task however and the methods used were exceedingly horrendous.

Despite their intelligence, elephants can be spooked easily and there are many recorded instances of a war elephant panicking, turning around and trampling soldiers on its own side to death.

Interestingly enough, the Second World War still saw the use of the pachyderms, as they could pull aeroplanes out on the airfield and artillery guns into emplacements.

5. Cats

A ship’s cat sits perilously in the gun barrel of the HMAS Encounter in the First World War. (Wikipedia pic)

While your domestic cat is obviously incapable of killing anyone, they still serve an important role in the military, or rather, the navy.

Naval kitties hunt down rats that may have stowed away onboard vessels and kill them before they can cause damage to wiring and equipment or just nibble away at supplies.

They also tend to boost ship crews’ morale as watching their antics and playing with them helps to break up the monotony of daily duties.

The use of bigger cats like lions and cheetahs on the battlefield has also been recorded in ancient Egypt; Pharaoh Rameses II’s pet lion fought alongside him in the 1274BC battle of Kadesh.

On a rather recent note, the American Central Intelligence Agency attempted to use cats to spy on the Soviets.

It failed miserably, as the cats proved hard to train, as one might have guessed. And according to some stories, a cat that cost US$20 million to train and equip was killed before it could start its mission when it was run over by a taxi.