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

by Richard van Emden

Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (1 Nov 2010)
ISBN-10: 1408806118
ISBN-13: 978-1408806111


The publication of this book coincided with a year in which ASWA was particularly remembering Animals in War. It provides detail both of the great suffering which animals endured in the First World War and also of the great comfort and hope which animals gave the troops who fought in that war. It can be thoroughly recommended to anyone with an interest in the subject.

It takes the form of series of extracts of accounts by those who served, together with a linking commentary. The extracts are arranged chronologically and, apart from anything else, the book provides a potted history of the War on the western front. There are no extracts from French, German or Russian sources, although, allowing something for a special English concern for animals, one guesses that the French and German experience was similar.

As regards the suffering, it easy to forget that although after the first months, the story of the First World War in the west is the story of trench warfare, horses and mules still provided the principal form of transport at the front, and that very large numbers of them were employed. 225,000 horses and mules were killed in the fighting and 56,000 were killed at the end of the war as no longer required (and evidently not in a fit state to be sold). The book contains many individual accounts which are either grim or touching or both - as an example, Rifleman Aubrey Smith of London Rifle Brigade saying goodbye to Jumbo, who had served him well over a year and a half and was now going back down the lines to be shot, having had a leg shot away.

As regards the comfort and hope, pets - particularly cats and dogs - were made much of, and although they too inevitably were killed from time to time, they were usually not made deliberate targets by the other side. The book ends with an account from after the end of the war by Pte Albert Lowry of the Army Service Corps of his successfully smuggling the dog which he felt had saved his life back into England (the smuggling necessary because he couldn't get quarantine papers for the dog and, probably, also because he couldn't have afforded to pay for keeping her in quarantine anyway).

Finally, there are many accounts of the beauty of nature perceived, incongruously, from the trenches. There are a number of accounts of listening to nightingales. The bleakest part of the book is that describing conditions in the autumn of 1917 when following the artillery bombardments of that year, the front had been turned into a wasteland in which there was seemingly nothing living at all save the combatants on both sides. Even the rats get left out of these accounts.

This short note can best end by quoting the extract with Richard van Emden ends his Introduction. It is from an account by Lt Melville Hastings, who was killed on 3 October 1918:

A week since, I was lying in no man's land. A little German dog trotted up and licked my British face. I pulled his German ears and stroked his German back. He wagged his German tail. My little friend abolished no man's land, and so in time can we.

Philip Petchey