World War One will receive a high public profile over the next two months as we head towards the centenary of the close of that most horrific conflict. Last Saturday and Sunday, St Mary’s sister church, St Michael’s, held a wonderful community weekend, culminating in the dedication of a new memorial to five WW1 victims from this parish who were not listed on the our original WW1 memorials when they were erected in the 1920s.
As we seek to learn the lessons of the past, our attention is rightly drawn to the cost of warfare. However, that attention should not exclusively focus on human suffering. Animals were involved as well. Consider for a moment the horse. At the start of WW1, some European countries still had cavalry regiments, hangovers from the middle ages when whole armies went into battle on horseback. Within days of the start of the Great War, it was obvious that horses were no match for the brutality of modern machine-gun fire. But even after the end of cavalry charges, horses were used throughout the war to carry troops and equipment, to pull gun carriages and supplies. As a result, they continued to be a target for enemy fire. An estimated 8 million horses died in WW1 – from wounds, starvation, thirst, exhaustion, disease, and exposure.
Ulrich Raulff describes the suffering of these innocent participants in his seminal work Farewell to the Horse
Who can bear to see a horse in agony? The horse, that tragic animal – the sight of its death is unbearable. Its long legs buckling as it sinks down to its knees. The slow collapse of its great body, the broken look in its eyes – nobody can bear to look upon it.
The sight of suffering animals chisels through the armour of the toughest soldier. [Raulff quotes one WW1 participant who said] ‘I felt sorry for the horses, not the people. But I felt sorry for the horses till the very last day.’ [Raulff, Farewell to the Horse (Allen Lane, 2017), 373]
Of course it is not only horses that are abused in war. Elephants, mules, cats and dogs have all been used in military land campaigns. Dolphins and sea lions have been trained for missions under water, for example to search out mines. And pigeons have been used to carry messages through the air.
The sacrifice and bravery of animals in war is marked by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. through the Dickin Medal. This award is named after Maria Dickin, PDSA founder, and is sometimes called the Victoria Cross for animals. The first recipient of the Dickin Medal was a pigeon called White Vision who delivered a message that led to the rescue of a ditched aircrew in 1943. White Vision flew for 9 hours in bad visibility and against strong headwinds. The most recent recipient of the Dickin Medal, awarded less than a year ago, is Mali, a dog who saw service in Afghanistan. Despite being injured three times by grenade explosions, Mali continued to fulfil his role, indicating where Taliban fighters were hiding.
The Dickin Medal bears the legend ‘we also serve’. Animals do serve but – unlike many soldiers, sailors and airmen – they are conscripts. It is therefore appropriate that the words ‘they had no choice’ are among the inscriptions to be found on the Animals in War Memorial on Park Lane in London. It is a very moving tribute. On the south side a burdened horse and donkey trudge up steps towards a gap in the wall. On the far side, animals are portrayed as having passed through conflict to freedom, a dog and a horse running free on the verdant grass beyond.
Christians have a duty of care over the plants and animals of the world. God has set us in our world for a reason and with responsibilities. He has given us dominion but this is not the same as domination. Our treatment of animals in both the civilian and military sphere is a marker of the extent to which we take this responsibility seriously. And, as we heard from the prophet Isaiah, writing over 2500 years ago, God’s coming kingdom, towards which we look and for which we strive, will be marked not only by an end to human hostilities, but also by a restoration of harmony between all God’s creatures. Amen.