Dogs in WWI

Man’s Best Friend During the War
Stylized painting of the silhouettes of a soldier sitting down on a battlefield and a dog in front of him.

Dogs played an important military role for most European armies during World War I, serving in a variety of tasks. Dogs hauled machine gun and supply carts. They also served as messengers, often delivering their missives under a hail of fire. Though it is difficult to fully account for their numbers, according to one French source “more than two thousand dogs” were in service on the Western Front at one time during the war, and the Imperial War Museums believes over 16 million total animals were in service during the course World War I.

Black and white photograph of a row of machine gun carts pulled by two dogs each, along with their handlers in military combat uniform.
Belgian soldiers with machine gun carts pulled by dogs. Learn more in the Online Collections Database.

During the war, all armies had organized medical corps ready to go to the front lines. Stretcher-bearers ran out onto the battlefields to dress wounds and carry the wounded to aid stations, with the assistance of dogs used to locate and help the wounded.

French first aid dogs were selected and carefully trained, often for months, to go onto battlefields and locate wounded soldiers. They were trained to either stay with the injured until human aid arrived or to bring back evidence of the wounded soldier. Many of the dogs actually carried first aid kits in packs on their backs for immediate use by the wounded.

Black and white photo of a British soldier sitting outside in a muddy field. A medium-sized dog stands in front of him.
A British soldier with Bruce, a messenger dog, on the western front in France. Learn more in the Online Collections Database.

The French, among others, also used small dogs as rat catchers in the trenches. Rats were the overwhelming scourge of trench life and rat-killing dogs proved invaluable to life on the front.

A large group of soldiers wearing early model cloth gas masks posing for a photograph. Several of the soldiers are seated in front. One of the seated soldiers holds a small dog in his lap, which is also wearing a gas mask.
French troops in gas masks, holding their mascot who is also outfitted with a mask, from The Illustrated War News, March 29, 1916. Learn more in the Online Collections Database.

Dogs were valued for their skills during the war, and in high demand. In response, the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.) Headquarters issued the following general order on Oct. 1, 1918: “In order not to curtail the supply of dogs required for the ‘Service Francais des Chiens de guerre,’ [French war service dogs] all officers and soldiers serving in the A.E.F. are forbidden to purchase or to have in their possession, except as may have been issued them for official use, any dogs of breeds suitable for war purposes, especially the shepherd, the drover and the mastiff dogs.”

Black and white photograph of a WWI-era aircraft with a pilot in the seat. Another soldier stands on the ground in front of the wing, petting a dog that is seated on the wing.
Unidentified German soldier and aviator in German twin seat Aviatik C1 reconnaissance aircraft, with dog lying on the wing. Learn more in the Online Collections Database.

In addition to their working role in the war, animal mascots, especially dogs, were popular with soldiers from both sides, building morale and creating a feeling of home under war conditions. In speaking of Moritz, his faithful dog, the Red Baron, German flying ace Baron Manfred von Richthofen, said: “The most beautiful being in all of creation is the genuine Danish hound, my little lap dog, my Moritz.“ Richthofen even took Moritz up in his plane on occasion.

Black and white photograph of a seated white man in military combat uniform with a small dog in his lap.
Photograph of an unidentified soldier with a dog in front of a tent. From the photo album of Private First Class Camille B. Fuller, 1st Corps, 1st Photo Section, AEF. Learn more in the Online Collections Database.

After the war, some of these dogs became pets of American soldiers. Two abandoned German Shepherd puppies were found on the front by a U. S. soldier who adopted them. Although illicit in the eyes of General Headquarters, he took them back to the States. The female, Nanette, died in transit but her brother Rin Tin Tin made it to California where a life of fame and fortune in motion pictures awaited.

Scan of a typewritten card. Red Cross logo in the lower right hand corner. Text: This is a good dog / He is going on a long journey. / Please be kind to him. / Give him water, food and exercise. / Some day you will get your reward. / He has been 'Over There.'
A typewritten card that accompanied a dog on his journey. Learn more in the Online Collections Database.