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Tommy’s Ark: Soldiers and their Animals in the Great War

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BerichtGeplaatst: 20 Nov 2010 20:02    Onderwerp: Tommy’s Ark: Soldiers and their Animals in the Great War Reageer met quote

Weer een geweldig nieuw boek van Richard van Emden

Tommy’s Ark: Soldiers and their Animals in the Great War


Back to the trenches, but from a different perspective - soldiers’ strong feelings for animals and wildlife. Hardened to the routine slaughter of one another, men channelled their need for affection towards their horses, dogs, birds, mice and even the insect world.
Many units adopted an animal as a mascot and spoiled it rotten. There are photographs of goats wearing cap badges, dogs in peaked caps, a battalion’s pet monkey, a soldier with his pet fox, a baboon with a pipe in its mouth - even a lion cub.

The lion cub was acquired by a Major General, Tom Bridges, from a friend who had won it in a raffle. He took it to the front in a champagne hamper and named it Poilu, letting it run loose in the trenches. With so much dead horsemeat about, it was not difficult to feed Poilu.
‘I had intimations that the Commander-in-Chief disapproved, but he helped to amuse the men.’

When he was wounded and had a leg amputated, Bridges said: ‘Well, I hope they gave it to the lion.’ Poilu went home to a private zoo.
By contrast, a particularly fierce and aggressive commander, known as Buffalo Bill, used to keep a tiny kitten in his pocket wherever he went. He would hold up the war whenever it wanted to feed or relieve itself.
More than a million horses and mules were sent into service, of which a quarter were killed in action. Their bulk, as they pulled limbers of shells or rations up to the line, made them easy targets for artillery.
A veterinary captain wrote: ‘The warhorse is an intelligent animal, very cute and cunning. One, known from his wounds as Shrapnel, knew at once when he was due to go into the line and would immediately go lame. He fooled everybody - until inspection proved there was nothing wrong with him.’

Men hated to lose their horses. A wagon driver whose horse was killed under him knelt beside its body as it was cut from its harness.
A brigadier tapped him on the shoulder: ‘Never mind, sonny.’
The man wouldn’t move. He simply pointed a finger, saying: ‘Bloody Germans.’
‘A wounded animal leaves me with a feeling of loathing, loathing towards myself and humanity,’ wrote a private in the veterinary corps.
‘Too often have I seen reproach in the eyes of a dying horse.’ The worst fate was slipping off the duck boards into the sea of mud left by shell holes. Horses could not be pulled out, but drowned by inches.
‘There was nothing to do but shoot them.’

Horses suffered terribly during the First World War: Soldiers of the Honourable Artillery Company are seen here with their horse
The opposite emotion, hatred, was felt for the ubiquitous rats, growing obscenely fat and fearless on unburied corpses.
It was unsafe to shoot them within the trench.
‘We have to suspend our food in sandbags from the roof of the dug-out. We wait to find them swinging from the rope.’
Killing rats was second nature, but when someone knocked a mole on the head he felt remorse: ‘Poor little inoffensive creature. His life was as precious to him as mine is to me.’
Mice were as common, but aroused more amusement than animosity.
A very bold, pale-faced mouse, nicknamed Adolphus, entertained the men, who would trap it under a tin hat propped up on a matchstick. It didn’t seem to mind.
‘He had an air of superiority like a head waiter’s.’
Adolphus always came back for more biscuit and sometimes whisky.
Mice were carried by the sappers who tunnelled under No Man’s Land to warn them of dangerous gas levels. If they became helpless in their hands it was a signal to evacuate the tunnel quick. Other miners carried canaries in cages hanging from their teeth.

It was wild nature that inspired so many men to write lyrical letters. No Man’s Land, where it hadn’t been churned to mud by shellfire, abounded like the surrounding farmland in wild flowers, poppies and cornflowers - and larks. Just before sunrise ‘the larks rose and sang hymns of praise’.
Men on dawn watch wrote of this moment with awe and delight. Others loved the swallows who nested and determinedly raised chicks in ruined farm buildings, undeterred by shot and shell.
‘Those blessed birds brought instant relief to our nerves and tempers.’
The sight, in spring, of migrating flocks of geese or lapwings flying north brought to mind their destinations in England - the Fens, or perhaps Surrey’s woodland. Birds were free.
‘One can close one’s eyes and imagine all is peace.’
A visiting corporal took a pot shot at a bird which had been seen daily on a shattered tree stump, muttering: ‘What have you got to sing about?’
He was set upon and told to: ‘F*** off out of it.’
Bored by so much waiting in the trenches, men studied beetles, spiders, ladybirds, even earwigs with intense interest, as well as swallowtail butterflies perching on the parapet, almost within their grasp.
The pair of swans which glided on the canal around the shattered walls of Ypres were legendary - ‘Somehow they seemed mystical beings, invulnerable’ (alas, they weren’t).
Animals didn’t take sides. Pet dogs ran about freely, sometimes across No Man’s Land. One day one came back from the German side with a message tied around its neck: ‘Comrades in misfortune! How about peace?’
In this heartwarming collection of unknown letters and interviews, Richard Van Emden does not stint on the horrors of the fighting.
But men never wrote home about that. Instead, in the intervals between barrages, they took consolation from nature.
‘I have never lived so close to nature or been so acutely aware of it. Here, where death reigns, I was never more alive.’

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