The No Man’s Land was a place you would not want to find yourself in as a soldier of World War I— a stretch of land in the middle of two opposing trenches where the worst of encounters happened, and plenty of lives had been lost. Safe to say that it was the most dangerous place for the soldiers to be during the First World War. To those who found themselves helpless and wounded in this region, sometimes help came in the form of a wet nose and wagging tail: the good boys and girls of World War I were there to help, called the Mercy Dogs.

Exploring the Possibility

Humans and dogs had since walked alongside each other that very first moment that one ancient person decided to toss food to some wild dogs instead of scaring them away or maybe killing them. In the murals of ancient Egypt, dogs were depicted in the battles, while ancient Greeks mentioned dogs in their written accounts, too.

Casualty dog reporting to its handler.
Casualty dog reporting to its handler. (United States Army, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons/Wikipedia)

More than two decades away from World War I in 1890, an idea dawned on a painter and a dog lover named Jean Bungartz. What if I train dogs to help find wounded soldiers? And so he founded Deutschen Verein für Santiätshunde, or German Association for medical dogs, which was a volunteer-based training of dogs for war.

Five years later, the idea reached Britain when Major Edwin Richardson noticed a man purchasing English dogs to be shipped to Germany. He found out that the guy was sent out by his government to buy many collie dogs to accompany the German soldiers.  “I was told that these dogs were found to be excellent for the work required and that they had nothing in Germany, which could compare with them,” he said.

As someone who was also fond of dogs, Richardson began experimenting to see if dogs could be indeed useful in times of war. He went to the Barry Buddon army camp and started by fastening the dogs with saddlebags and taught them to bring spirits to the volunteer soldiers. Based on his judgment, Terriers and Collies were good, but Airedales were the “ideal.” And so, in 1914, his wife officially opened the British War Dog School. As one journalist who visited the dog school observed,

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.

The dogs were also trained to find people by paying unemployed locals to lie in the woods so they could teach them how to ignore the dead bodies and German uniforms, as well as wear gas masks. When World War I broke out, the training that these dogs went through was put to the test.

Mercy Dogs of WWI

Along with the brave soldiers that rushed into the trenches of World War I was the paws that ran alongside them. More than 50,000 dogs accompanied these men. There were German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Boxers, and Richard’s Airedales, along with some other breeds. They were also referred to as Red Cross dogs, ambulance dogs, or casualty dogs. Still, whichever they called them, the tasks of these good boys and girls remained the same: to carry medical supplies on their backs so that the wounded soldiers they managed to find could treat themselves. At the same time, for those who were too weak and badly wounded, the dogs would tear off a piece of their uniform and bring it back to the camp to alert the others. To these soldiers in need, the arrival of the Mercy Dogs meant help was not far away, and the dogs, with all their might, would summon the medical assistants.

Ambulance Dog of WWI.
Ambulance Dog of WWI. (not specified (except those with signature on image) – W. E. Mason – Dogs of all Nations, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In times that the dogs found men who were dying, they became the angels that accompanied them in their last few breaths to make sure that they would not die alone.

Legacy of the Good Boys and Girls

The Mercy Dogs were unsung heroes of World War I. They helped numerous soldiers whom the others thought were already dead. There was also the famous Sergeant Stubby, who learned to alert the troops about incoming mustard gas, hearing the whirring of the engines far before his human companions could hear them. When the war ended in 1918, around 7,000 Mercy Dogs did not make it back to their homes. The Red Cross also began using therapy dogs in the 1940s to help soldiers suffering from conditions like PTSD.

It’s wonderful how the hope that these soldiers desperately needed came in wet noses and wagging tails. Time and time again, they never failed to prove that they are indeed and always man’s best friend.

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