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On the Hundredth Anniversary of the Start of World War I, Remembering the Part Animals Played

Horses, dogs, pigeons—even glowworms—were crucial participants in the war to end all wars.

Photo of a man and a horse in France wearing gas masks.

An American soldier demonstrates the use of gas masks for men and horses in France in 1918.

Tucked between two lanes of traffic at Brook Gate, in London's leafy Hyde Park, two heavily laden mules, cast in bronze, trudge terrified but steadfast across an imaginary battlefield. In front of them, carved into a long wall of white Portland stone, is a frieze of other animals—an elephant, a camel, dogs, carrier pigeons—with an inscription that reads, "They had no choice."


The film adaptation of
 Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel War Horse vividly captured the plight of horses. "Eight million horses died on all sides in the First World War," says Jilly Cooper, author of Animals in War and the moving force behind the memorial in Park Lane.The sacrifice of the nearly ten million men who died from 1914 to 1918 will always remain the focus of our remembrance. But on the eve of the hundredth anniversary of World War I, we can also reflect on the fact that animals played a big part—and paid a high price. Indeed, throughout history no other conflict has seen as many animals deployed as the "war to end all wars."

"They died in battle and shellfire but also from exposure and disease. They were so hungry they ate their rugs and died choking on the buckles. Many drowned in the mud."

With so many horses at work in France, on the home front alternatives had to be found to haul heavy loads. In Sheffield, for instance, a circus elephant named Lizzie carried munitions and machinery around the city.

On the battlefront, it wasn't just horses. Pigeons carried messages, oxen hauled guns, and even glowworms—collected by the thousands in jars—were pressed into