Duty and the beast - Issue 56 - Magazine | Monocle

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Inscribed on a monument on London’s Park Lane, built to honour those animals who have served and died in war, is the legend: “They had no choice”. A fitting description indeed of the slavish devotion often demonstrated by animals through more than 2,000 years of military engagement under, over and alongside their human counterparts. But this history features tragicomic tales at least as often as heart-warming ones.

The motto for the hapless horses drafted into action during the First World War, for example, probably should have been “to protect and be served”, as many of those equine servants fortunate enough to survive the carnage went from the front line to the dinner plates of hungry ex-service personnel after the conflict. Bon appétit.

Other experiments to work with animals have been unsuccessful. The US army attempted to launch a camel division but there were a number of unforeseen problems, chief among them the fact that horses apparently cannot abide the potent smell of camels and are consequently unwilling to accompany them on military detail. And pity the charges of the British in the Burmese jungle: poor mules, whose vocal chords were slashed to keep them quiet and out of the earshot of enemy scouts.


Bottle-nosed dolphins

Along with sea lions, they serve in the US Navy’s Marine Mammal Program. Particularly well-suited to sweeping for mines, as their echo-sonar ability is unmatched, they are small and nimble enough to avoid triggering the devices. Instead, they attach lines and floats to mark the mines they discover. The dolphins’ comprehensive healthcare package includes regular heart-rate monitoring and tooth-brushing. Perhaps if Flipper had studied harder instead of wasting his youth learning to tail-walk, he too could have become a big fish in the navy.



Famously, the brilliant Carthaginian commander Hannibal launched a pachyderm-powered trans-Pyrenean assault on the Romans. Despite such heritage the elephant’s military use now is principally ceremonial – for example on Sri Lankan Independence Day, when the behemoths parade alongside current service personnel. The last reported active deployment of elephants was by the Iraqis in 1987, when they helped to transport heavy weaponry at Kirkuk. Elephants do possess impressive memory and intuition, however, surely making them prime candidates for a move into intelligence work should worldwide military cutbacks continue at the present rate.



The only military “coo” worth talking about comes from this small but strong breed. These tireless flyers can cover well over 160km a day for as long as 10 days, at a top speed of more than 550 metres a minute. A stalwart amid the chaos of the First World War, the pigeon’s reliability in delivering messages remains a big draw. The People’s Liberation Army in China has a new squadron of 10,000 birds in training in Chengdu, ready to take over communications in the event of electromagnetic interference with Chinese radio or satellite signals.


California sea lions

The US Navy’s sea lions can dive to prodigious depths and also have superb eye-sight, even in the briny deep. These precocious pinnipeds will happily leap aboard a naval vessel and routinely take to the skies in specially modified aircraft to fly to war zones. The top recruits are also trained to tag intruders in protected waters, thereby allowing their human colleagues to reel in the unwanted visitors. They will even salute on command – in return for a tasty fish.



Dogs have served with distinction since the days of ancient Egypt. Today they are deployed in many roles: as guards, search and rescue specialists, detectives, on patrols and – more controversially – to intimidate captives. US working dogs in Afghanistan wear bullet-proof vests, while others happily make parachute jumps with their handlers. The most high-profile sortie by a military mutt in recent times was on the raid to capture Osama Bin Laden. The Navy Seals who carried out the mission were joined by a four-legged colleague. His tracking skills and ability to mete out a sharp dose of “ruff” justice were to be called upon in the event that the fugitive was holed up in a secret chamber somewhere in his Abbottabad compound.



The world’s sole remaining, battle-ready mounted unit is India’s celebrated 61st cavalry regiment, an amalgamation of squadrons from Gwalior, Jodhpur and Mysore in case you were wondering. Some specially-convened mounted divisions have been involved in recent front-line action, including US special forces who rode with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2001. Otherwise it is only guerilla groups and local militias who rely on the horse for battle, rather than ceremony.



Voytek the Syrian bear served in the Second World War at the Battle of Monte Cassino. He was a pet of Polish soldiers who acquired him on a stopover in Palestine. After arriving in Italy, Voytek became an active member of the supply team bringing munitions to the front. Well over six feet tall and 113kg, he was a natural at shifting heavy artillery shells. His appetite for hard work was matched only by his enthusiasm for food, beer and cigarettes. After the war, the 12th Polish regiment’s insignia showed Voytek with a shell slung over his mighty arms.



Serving alongside the dogs on the Israel Defence Force’s Oketz elite commando division are a number of the South American pack animals, a natural choice for a military seeking sure-footed and sturdy load-bearers to work in inhospitable terrain. The camelid recruits are fully immersed in the activities of the unit – even joining their human and canine counterparts in eating kosher food during Passover.



There is a rich history of caprine service in the British Army. Goats join as full members of the battalion and can be promoted accordingly. Once they have risen up the chain of command they are afforded the privileges of rank – including membership of the officers’ mess – and the right to be saluted by their subordinates. One noted example is William Windsor, who served from 2001 to 2009, as a lance corporal in the first Battalion, the Royal Welsh. He was demoted to fusilier after butting his handler during a ceremony to mark the Queen’s birthday.



In the ancient world, canny combatants employed the “bee bomb” – nothing flushed out a rival tribe from its cave dwelling quite like a nest of hornets. In the First World War, soldiers used bottled glow-worms as a reading aid in the trenches. Into the Second, and during the Cold War, special research facilities on both sides focused on the genetic engineering and mass production of crop-devouring beetles. Other disease-carrying pests and super-resistant mosquitos were developed, ready to be unleashed on the enemy below.

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