Joe Knight looks at the life of Maria Dickin, founder of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) in 1917 and creator of the ‘animals’ Victoria Cross’.
Military medals are awarded for a variety of different reasons. In America, the most prestigious of these is the Medal of Honor; in the UK, it is the Victoria Cross. But there is one medal awarded to heroes that no human can earn. This medal, the Dickin Medal, is awarded only to animals that have performed heroic deeds. To date, the Dickin Medal has been awarded to 63 animals responsible for saving countless human lives.
Since the time when animals were first used in warfare, people have understood that such animals are like soldiers – they need to be fed right, treated correctly, given proper medical care and, as far as the animals were concerned, treated more ‘humanely’. One woman understood this better than anyone.
In 1870, Maria Dickin was born in London, the eldest of eight children. In the 1890s, she opened a voice studio in central London which became a magnet for famous singers. She gave up her work after getting married and stayed at home, entertaining high-profile guests from the political, business, and legal professions. But for Maria, an independent-minded woman of the late 19th century, leaving her work at the voice studio left a gap in her life.
To fill the void, Maria decided to go into social work. She attended the sick and poor of London’s East End and was appalled at the poverty she discovered. It was the suffering of the animals, however, that she found most heartbreaking. She witnessed dogs and cats starving, skin raw with mange, and often limping with fractured bones. Other animals, such as goats and rabbits, huddled together in backyards, sick, injured, and ignored. Horses and donkeys belonging to fruit, vegetable, and coal hawkers were often forced to work while lame, crippled, and exhausted by heavy loads.
Maria was revolted by what she witnessed. She recalled the scene in a book published in 1940: ‘The suffering and misery of these poor, uncared-for creatures in our overcrowded areas was a revelation to me. I had no idea it existed, and it made me indescribably miserable.’
She opened a clinic, called the ‘People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals’ (PDSA), where those living in poverty could bring their sick and injured animals for free medical care. On 17 November 1917, she opened her first animal clinic in a basement. The clinic proved to be so popular that police were needed to control the crowds of people flocking for free treatment. Within just four years, the PDSA had seven clinics across London, treating some 40,000 animals a year.
The demand for care grew so great that she soon had to find a larger site. At a time when women were not allowed entry into the Royal Veterinary College, Maria recruited and trained her own staff and established the modern-day PDSA.
Within six years she had built and outfitted her first horse-drawn mobile animal clinic. Before long she had a fleet of mobile animal dispensaries which were common sights across the country, providing treatment to animals and comfort to their owners. PDSA clinics soon numbered 17, treating 150,000 animals a year. Not content with this, Maria extended her work to other countries: France, Rumania, Morocco, Egypt, Greece, and Palestine.
During the Second World War Blitz, PDSA rescue squads saved over 250,000 pets buried and injured by the bombings. In January 1943, the PDSA set up the Allied Forces Mascot Club for animals that provided morale-boosting friendship for military personnel fighting in the war.
It was at this point that the idea of honouring the courage and devotion of animals fighting alongside British forces was conceived. In 1943 Maria established the Dickin Medal to recognise animals that had shown outstanding bravery while serving in or associated with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence. It became known as the animals’ VC.
The medal, which can only be considered on receipt of an official commendation, was awarded 54 times between 1943 and 1949. The recipients comprised 32 pigeons, 18 dogs, three horses, and one cat. It is a bronze medal with the words ‘For Gallantry’ and ‘We Also Serve’ adorned inside a laurel wreath.
The first animal awarded the Dickin Medal was a pigeon named White Vision. On 11 October 1943, White Vision was aboard a Catalina flying-boat when it was forced to ditch in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland. The airplane’s radio was not working, so White Vision was released with a message specifying where the airplane had gone down.
White Vision flew 60 miles against a strong headwind and returned to her roost. The message she carried was read and the search resumed. The airplane was found and all 11 members of the crew were rescued after spending 18 hours in rough seas. White Vision was awarded the Dickin Medal on 2 December 1943. Her citation read: ‘For delivering a message under exceptionally difficult conditions and so contributing to the rescue of an air crew while serving with the RAF in October 1943.’
The first dog to be awarded the Dickin medal was Bob, a mongrel attached to an infantry unit in Africa in 1944. Bob was travelling with his unit when he froze suddenly and refused to move. A noise was then heard which revealed the presence of the enemy. Because of Bob’s actions, none of the men of his unit were killed or captured. Bob’s citation reads: ‘For constant devotion to duty with special mention of patrol work at Green Hill, North Africa, while serving with the 6th Battalion Queens Own Royal West Kent Regiment.’
Olga, a police horse, was one of three horses to have been awarded the Dickin Medal. She was on duty in South London when a German flying-bomb destroyed nearby houses. Olga’s award read: ‘On duty when a flying-bomb demolished four houses in Tooting and a plate-glass window crashed immediately in front of her. Olga, after bolting for 100 yards, returned to the scene of the incident and remained on duty with her rider, controlling traffic and assisting rescue organisations.’
Only one cat, Simon, earned the Dickin Medal. In 1948, the HMS Amethyst entered Stonecutter’s Island in the port of Hong Kong for supplies. In the hot and humid climate of the area, rats were a threat to ships’ food supplies and the health of crews. Simon was snuck aboard the Amethyst and was put to work catching rats. In April 1949, Amethyst was ordered to steam up the Yangtze River and relieve HMS Consort, which was guarding the British Embassy.
Amethyst got less than 100 miles upriver before she started receiving fire from Communist shore batteries. Amethyst was hit and had ran aground. Twenty-five crew members, including the captain, were dead or dying. Simon the cat was hit with flying debris and was knocked unconscious. Eventually the senior officer got Amethyst refloated and steamed upriver away from the shore batteries. Simon, who was injured, dehydrated, and had his whiskers and eyebrows burned away, was taken to the ship’s medical officer who provided what treatment he could. Simon then found a corner, curled-up and slept.
In his absence, rats became a serious problem aboard the ship. After several days, Simon, still in obvious pain, started to go on the prowl again. Simon caught at least one rat a day. He would also visit the injured sailors who were in sick bay recovering. The recovering sailors would allow Simon to sit on their bunks where he would rub up against them and purr. His actions helped the young injured sailors deal with their traumas.
In the meantime, there was a particularly large and ferocious rat on board that the crew nicknamed ‘Mao Tse Tung’. Mao and his followers were wrecking havoc with the ship’s dwindling supplies. The crew felt that Simon in his weakened state would be no match for a one-on-one with Mao. One day, however, Simon and Mao came face to face. Simon attacked first and killed the rat. The crew was so impressed they promoted Simon to Able Seacat Simon.
In 1949 the captain of the Amethyst wrote a citation and Simon was awarded the Dickin Medal. In November 1949, Simon died of a viral infection and was buried in the PDSA Pet Cemetery with full naval honors and his coffin draped with the Union Jack.
Before 2000, the last award of a Dickin Medal had been in 1949. The award was then revived, however, to honour posthumously one Gander, a Newfoundland dog. His award reads: ‘For saving the lives of Canadian infantrymen during the Battle of Lye Mun on Hong Kong Island in December 1941.’
On three documented occasions, Gander, the mascot of the Royal Rifles of Canada, engaged the enemy as his regiment joined the Winnipeg Grenadiers, members of Battalion Headquarters ‘C’ Force, and other Commonwealth troops in their defence of the Island. Twice Gander’s attacks halted the enemy’s advance and protected groups of wounded soldiers. In a final act of bravery the war dog was killed in action gathering a grenade. Without Gander’s intervention many more lives would have been lost in the assault.
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