Tommy’s Ark: Soldiers and their Animals in the Great War, by Richard van Emden, Bloomsbury RRP£16.99, 352 pages
It was all quiet on the western front – apart from the neighing of horses, barking of dogs, miaowing of cats, chirruping of grasshoppers, hissing of geese, chattering of monkeys and even growling of bears.
“Did I see a lion?” asked the prime minister Herbert Asquith when he visited the front line. The answer was “yes”, prime minister, you’ve just come face-to-muzzle with the division’s mascot, a cub won in a Red Cross raffle.
“Lions led by donkeys”, the cruel metaphor used to describe the infantry and its generals in the first world war, may not have been literally true but war horses, mules and donkeys certainly earned their oats as beasts of burden.
According to The Animals’ War exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, by 1916 there were one million horses conscripted into the conflict on both sides to pull carts and join in cavalry charges. While the appalling privations of soldiers have been carefully depicted in fiction and non-fiction, the sufferings of animal conscripts have been understandably left in the shade. Yet their bones, too, were part of the battlefield scenery, as is demonstrated by a lieutenant’s directions on how to find him: “Bear half-left to dead pig; cross stream below dead horse; follow smell of three dead cows.”
In his latest book, Richard van Emden, author of The Last Fighting Tommy, explores the experience of animals on the front line. For this enthralling and readable survey, he trawled through memoirs, letters and interviews to extract powerful descriptions by all ranks about their feelings for wildlife and the natural world. These passages are linked by Emden’s brief accounts of the battles to which they refer, so that we perceive how the virgin landscapes of 1914 morphed into the devastated moonscapes of 1918.
Rats grew fat on unburied corpses, so dogs were prized for their ratting skills as well as to carry messages and, with more success by French peasants than the British army, to pull small carts. But pets, including kittens found among the bomb craters, also offered a rare outlet for a Tommy’s affections in the bleak battleground.
Accompanying the text are some striking images. There’s a wonderful full-page photograph showing a soldier’s face lit up as he cuddles a pet rabbit. In other photos, a signaller shows off his tame fox; a baboon mascot poses with pipe and hat; a soldier cradles Sammy, a dog who was wounded and gassed at Ypres and “served” on the Somme; and we meet Buster the bear, member of the 48th Battalion.
Sleeping out in the trenches, many soldiers were close to nature as never before. They savoured the red dawn coming up over no-man’s-land. Birds, soaring unscathed over Allied and enemy lines, lifted the mind briefly from the mud and blood.
The captain whose entry concludes the book saw himself afterwards as fortunate – and not just in surviving: “The mangled corpse is forgotten but the warbler with its nest and eggs is remembered.”