1914: Belgium’s Dogs of War

This article may seem an unusual one to find on a mainly-nautical oriented website but as a life-long dog lover I find it appropriate to honour Man’s Best Friends for rising heroically to a challenge a century ago. This article was written in August 2014, on the 100th anniversary of the opening of World War 1.

I am very conscious of what was happening in Belgium during the opening rounds. Germany’s savage onslaught in Western Europe fell first on this geographically small nation when the Belgian Government refused to allow free passage of German armies to attack France.  Belgium’s refusal, and its determination to resist invasion by a vastly more powerful foe, was heroic in the extreme and the nation was to pay a very high price in the years that followed. Belgium’s desperate resistance in 1914 was however to knock the meticulously-calculated German advance schedule off track. The famous Punch cartoon on the left sums it up brilliantly. Belgium gave French and British troops time to deploy to meet the onslaught after her own forces were forced to retreat. Almost all of the country was to be occupied by the Germans, with only a tiny corner in the south-west being held by Belgian forces for the remainder of the war. The German occupation was to be brutal, marked not just by atrocities against civilians, but by massive deportation of forced labour and by removal of industrial plant. Looting of food supplies brought the population to the edge of starvation and, up to 1917, was saved only by American relief supplies organised by future-president Herbert Hoover. The Belgian economy, which in 1914 had been the sixth largest in the world, would never recover its position in decades to come.

 Dogs pulling a milk cart in more peaceful times

Mark Antony’s call of “Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war!” in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar evokes images of ravening hounds straining at the least with bared fangs and bloodshot eyes. In 1914 however the “dogs of war” were to play much humbler but no less heroic roles. This was in Belgium, a country where, like parts of the Netherlands, dogs were in normal everyday use for pulling small carts.

 Two faithful servants

In the days before motor transport, and in a generally level country with few inclines, a dog was a cheap and effective way of transporting small items. A particular advantage was that, unlike horses or oxen, they could be kept easily in towns and, as omnivores, were low-maintenance as regards food. Dogs appear to have been widely used to draw small milk-carts and were popular subjects for postcards sold to tourists in the pre-1914 era.

Postcard showing Belgian infantry on the march – with canine support

The Belgian Army was also to make use of dogs for transporting light loads, being widely employed by machine-gun teams either for pulling the gun itself, or for moving ammunition and other necessities. Surviving photographs from 1914 show that these dogs went to war and one wonders how many were to survive. A particularly poignant aspect of these photographs is that one gets such a strong sense of trust and loyalty – even pride. These humble canine soldiers look proud of what they could do.

 A Vickers medium machine gun drawn by two K9 Privates of the Belgian Infantry

Belgian troops marching to the front, supported by dog transport

Exhausted dogs, having a well-earned rest:  One wonders what finally became of them

Some of the saddest photographs from Belgium in 1914 show refugees who have taken to the roads with a few possessions to escape the German advance. A month before these people were leading inoffensive, humble, useful lives, but as war engulfed them they were to leave what they had flee with little more than the clothes on their backs. Many of these people were dependent on their dog carts – often laden with the old and the infirm.

Refugee family – and the dogs are doing their best

Dogs drawing a very heavy load – misery for humans and for beasts

 Man’s Best Friend – nobler than any Kaiser

In all these photographs one is amazed at just how small many of these dogs were. One also has the strong the impression of the dogs’ endless loyalty and patience, “Man’s Best Friend” proving himself in extremity. And when I see such images I am overcome – even 100 years later – with loathing and hatred for Kaiser Wilhelm II and his ludicrous, callous, strutting clique, and the suffering they inflicted on innocent prople and animals.

And today – a hundred years on from this misery – we are confronted with images of even greater suffering as Christian and Yazidi refugees flee before an unthinkably more savage foe than the Germans were in 1914. The best way we can commemorate World War 1 and its sacrifices is to stand by these people in Iraq in their hour of need.

 Belgian canine transport in happier times

I am indebted to the splendid “Sweet Juniper Inspiration” website (www.sweetjuniperinspiration.com) for some of the illustrations used above

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