Part one of this column dealt with the recent release of Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, War Horse. Set in World War I, the movie tells an inspiring tale of love and devotion between man and animal. The movie also serves to remind us of the valuable role that animals played in winning World War I. Besides horses, dogs, pigeons, and even garden slugs played important roles in the war.
The most famous animal to emerge from the war had a strong Connecticut connection: Sgt. Stubby, a bulldog terrier with a short, stubby tail. Stubby connected with the 102nd Regiment of the 26th Division while it was training for war on the Yale campus. Pvt. John Robert Conroy of New Britain stowed Stubby below deck on the SS Minnesota when his regiment shipped off to France. An intelligent dog, Stubby soon endeared himself to his regiment. He first entered the trenches in February of 1918 at the Battle of Chemin des Dames.
Wounded twice—once by shrapnel and once by gas—Stubby participated in 17 battles. His acute hearing allowed him to recognize incoming shells well before his human comrades could, and he would run through the trenches barking to alert his buddies. Some even maintained that he could distinguish between the sound of regular artillery and gas shells. Trained to recognize English, Stubby also was keen to locate American wounded in No Man’s Land — the area between the trenches. He would dash out there when he heard soldiers speaking English and stand near the wounded, barking until a medic arrived. One time he accosted a German soldier mapping out the American trenches. Stubby bit him and caused him to trip. American soldiers then took the German prisoner. For this heroic deed, Stubby was promoted to the rank of sergeant, the first animal ever to be given a rank in the U.S. military.
After arriving back in the states, Stubby got a lot of press attention and met with President Woodrow Wilson. He subsequently had meetings with Presidents Harding and Coolidge as well and was frequently on parade wearing a vest sewn for him by French women. On this vest were Stubby’s medals and stripes. When Conroy enrolled at Georgetown University, Stubby became the school’s mascot for a few years. He died in Conroy’s arms in 1926, the most renowned animal war hero in American history. Stubby’s remains were preserved and are still on display at “The Price of Freedom” exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. He stands today in the Smithsonian next to “Cher Ami,” the famous carrier pigeon of World War I who was responsible for helping locate the “Lost Batallion.”
“Cher Ami” was one of thousands of carrier pigeons used by the U.S. Army to send messages. Though landline phones were used during the Great War, they were unreliable as the enemy often cut the wire strung out to enable them to work; thus, units of carrier pigeons were employed to send messages. Short but important messages got scrawled onto paper, which was then rolled up tightly and inserted into a hollow tube on the legs of a homing pigeon. The bird would then be released, circle briefly to orient itself, and then return to its nest with the valuable message. The pigeons were at great risk from being shot shortly after release as they flew in ever-expanding circles to orient themselves.
“Cher Ami” — “dear friend” — was clearly the most famous pigeon of World War I. A Black Check homing pigeon, Cher Ami was part of the U.S. Signal Corps of the famed 77th Division led by Major Charles Whittlesey. Whittlesey’s battalion was cut off and completely surrounded by German forces for 5 days during the Argonne campaign in October of 1918. The incident, popularly known as the “Lost Battallion” incident, is one of the most famous of the war and was made into a movie of the same name. After more than half of his battalion had been killed, Whittlesey began sending out homing pigeons with messages seeking aid. The first two were shot down and killed. The third and last pigeon was Cher Ami. Whittlesey scrawled the following message and put it in the canister on the pigeons’s leg: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven's sake, stop it!”
Cher Ami rose up with the message and was greeted with heavy gunfire. Shot and wounded, he continued his 25-mile flight to the rear, reaching his loft some 65 minutes later with the message. Reinforcements were sent in, and the lost battalion was saved. Partially blinded, shot through the breast, and with one leg hanging by a tendon, Cher Ami was nursed back to health, fitted with a wooden leg, was personally escorted to a ship by Gen. John J. Pershing, and was sent home. He died on June 13, 1919, from the long-term effects of his wounds. His body was preserved and placed on display at the Smithsonian, where it remains today. During the 1920s and 1930s, Cher Ami’s story was widely studied and known by American schoolchildren. Cher Ami is a member of the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame.
Less well-known than the role of horses, dogs, and pigeons was the important role played by ordinary garden slugs. Garden slugs became extremely useful for detecting poison gas. The chemical warfare unit of the U.S. Army was long searching for a creature to detect the presence of oncoming gas in time for the soldiers to don their masks. Cows, rats, mice, guinea pigs, cats — all proved useless in this regard. Flies and fleas were tried to no avail. The Army turned to the Smithsonian for help. Dr. Paul Bartsch had been studying ordinary garden slugs for eight years. As it turns out, the ordinary garden slug — limax maximus — has extraordinary olfactory capabilities:
They say every dog has its day; this was the slug’s day. He came through all his trials with colors flying. It was demonstrated that he could show the presence of mustard gas in a solution of one part in twelve million parts of air. He could even do more, for upon closer inspection it was found that by means of the slug’s reaction it was possible to determine the actual proportion of gas in the air. Since one part of mustard gas in four million parts of air marked the danger point in man, there was tremendous leeway which gave ample opportunity to sound a signal for putting on masks.
Every creature that had been tested by the Army for gas-detection purposes had developed pneumonia — except for the slug. When exposed to mustard gas, the garden slug closed its breathing aperture, thus protecting its lung membrane. Mustard gas in contact with moisture produces hydrochloric acid, which attacks the delicate lung membrane. The remarkable slug could endure many successive gassings and not be injured or have its ability to detect the presence of gas compromised. The slug was then made available to the U.S. Army for duty in the trenches starting in June 1918. Thus, slugs served with Army forces for five months and saved countless American lives. Imagine the convenience of a slug in a trench. Dogs, pigeons, and, especially, horses are high-maintenance animals requiring special handling, special food, and veterinary care. What could be easier than a slug? Just put him in a shoebox with a wet sponge, and you’re all set!
The recent release of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse provides us with an opportunity to acknowledge the very important role that animals played in World War I. Spielberg himself admitted that until he saw the play called War Horse that he “had never been that interested in World War I.” Perhaps the release of the movie will spark renewed interest in the war. As the stories of Sgt. Stubby, Cher Ami, and the ordinary garden slug demonstrate, there are many more interesting tales to be told about the Great War as its centennial fast approaches.
Notes, Sources, and Links:
1. Click on the following link to read a more detailed article about Connecticut's own Sgt. Stubby:
2. Animal Heroes of WWI by Harold Baynes is the main source for this article , including the quotation about the garden slug. Published in 1927, it has been long out of print but remains one of the best source for the topic.
3. Juliet Gardner's The Animals' War: Animals In Wartime From The First World War To The Present is another outstanding source for this topic.
4. Glow worms were also used by World War I soldiers to read maps without being detected by the enemy.
5. Click on this link to read more about Cher Ami and the Smithsonian exhibit called "The Price Of Freedom": http://americanhistory.si.edu/militaryhistory/collection/object.asp?ID=10