It is often lamented how young men are sent to fight wars instigated by politicians who are cosseted from conflict hundreds of miles from the front. Having said that, British troops doing the dirty work of parliamentarians who have never lifted a rifle in anger do so voluntarily; after all, we no longer have conscription. Understanding of the causes of the battle they’ve been dispatched to fight may be thin on the ground, but at least they have a clear idea as to who their enemy is and can do their job with a relatively confident faith in the justness of the task at hand. Could the same be said of those members of the animal kingdom recruited to humanity’s crusade, however?
In a week dominated by glum news (for a change), it was undoubtedly heartening to hear of the animal equivalent of the VC being awarded to a 12-year-old veteran of 400 missions to Iraq and Afghanistan, a German Shepherd named Lucca. Lucca is an ex-member of the US Marines who lost a leg in a roadside bomb blast during her six-year service to the American military and last week received the Dickin Medal, the highest honour available to animals involved in conflict. The medal was introduced in 1943 by Maria Dickin, founder of the PDSA, as long overdue recognition of the role animals have played in warfare, and after a lull of some fifty years, was revived as a contemporary prize in 2002, following the 9/11 attacks.
Horses and dogs had been used as expendable military hardware for centuries before the introduction of the Dickin Medal; indeed, prior to the intervention of technological advancements onto the battlefield, the cavalry regiment was a vital element of any army. In this respect, the First World War was the transitional conflict between the old world of warfare and the new, beginning with soldiers on horseback and ending with soldiers in tanks. Thousands of working horses were transplanted from the farmlands of Britain and sent to the Western Front, though it was only in the centenary year of WWI’s outbreak that these equine troops were belatedly awarded a posthumous Dickin Medal.
The initial recipients of the honour were mostly pigeons, acknowledging the part they played in carrying vital messages to ditched aircrews and besieged regiments during the Second World War. The first canine winner was called Bob, who served with the 6th Battalion Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment in North Africa. While WWII continued to rage, the Dickin Medal was divided between pigeons and dogs, with the only cat ever to be awarded it coming in 1949. He was called Simon and received the medal posthumously following the Yangtze Incident in the Chinese Civil War; Simon was the ship’s cat of HMS Amethyst, a British vessel trapped on the Yangtze River for three months as the Nationalists and Communists fought for China’s future. Simon received the Dickin Medal for ‘gallantry under fire’ – he was seriously wounded when the ship was shelled by the Communists; but he survived his injuries, offering the crew hope in the process and consequently disposing of a rat infestation on the ship as it remained stranded and vulnerable. To date, Simon remains the sole feline recipient of the honour.
The majority of Dickin Medals were awarded for service in the Second World War, though several horses received it in the aftermath of the conflict, when various V1 rockets belatedly exploded and the horses were employed to keep the public away from the sites. The last beast to be honoured during this period was a dog called Titch, who had served with the 1st Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps from 1941-45. Titch received the honour in 1949 and thereafter the award slipped into abeyance, despite the continuous use of animals in post-WWII twentieth century conflicts.
A degree of ingratitude was in evidence when the US military decided not to bring home any of the canine commandos that had served them during the Vietnam War; when the time eventually came for the Americans to beat an undignified retreat from Saigon, their dogs were mostly put down. Thankfully, such callous tactics didn’t apply in more recent conflicts involving Uncle Sam; the law stating US Army dogs could be adopted by civilians once their tours of duty were over was enshrined in the American statute books in 2000, meaning those that served with distinction in Iraq and Afghanistan could look forward to a life of domestic retirement. Considering a dog places such trust in its master and can be trained to sniff out landmines in advance of a platoon covering the same ground, it seems a small price to pay as thanks for the human lives saved.
Most of the revived (non-posthumous) Dickin Medals awarded since the turn of the Millennium have been awarded for courage in the face of adversity in Middle Eastern war zones. Dogs are no dumb beasts; detecting explosive devices may require the same techniques as used in a harmless game of ‘find the ball’, but the symbiotic relationship that can develop between man and his best friend means a dog will defend its master when it instinctively knows his life is threatened; unlike a human being, there is no conscious consideration for its own safety. As a definition of bravery on the battlefield, that kind of selfless action deserves rewarding, and as Lucca becomes the 66th recipient of a worthy honour, we must be thankful that such a warlike species as man can nevertheless inspire absolute devotion in a creature that mercifully only sees the best in us.
© The Editor