War Culture – Animals of war

7 mins read

The enormous success of last year’s film adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel War Horse caused a sudden public obsession with the plight of horses during the First World War. Articles appeared in all the newspapers and documentaries were made telling various stories of the ‘real’ war horses. But what of the other animals who have unwillingly made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of human conflict?

From monkeys used as live incendiary devices at the beginning of the Southern Song Dynasty to turkeys affixed with valuable supplies and dropped like edible parachutes on the defenders of the monastery of Santa Maria de la Cabeza during the Spanish Civil War, the innovative and very often inhumane ways in which animals have been used in war throughout history are many and diverse. As well as being turned into weapons, they have been transportation for personnel and equipment, as well as troop morale-boosters in the role of mascots. Here, we take a look at the roles played by different types of animals in different conflicts since the 4th century AD.



It is not known exactly when elephants were first used in warfare.  Early Indian hymns dating from the late 2nd and early 1st millennia BC refer to the use of elephants for transport, but make no reference to their use in war. It is not until the 4th century that we see indications that elephants were valued as integral parts of Indian kings’ armies.

The practice spread to the Persian Empireand thus came to influence the campaigns of Alexander the Great. At the Battle of Gaugamela, he was so impressed by the Persians’ deployment of 15 war elephants that after having defeated them, he took their elephants into his own army, adding to their number as he swept through the rest of Persia.

The Carthaginians also used the animals as effective weapons, but as their use became more common, anti-elephant tactics became more sophisticated. At Hannibal’s final defeat at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, his elephant charge was rendered ineffective when the Roman maniples that simply moved out the way, allowing the elephants to pass through their ranks, to be finished off by light infantry in the rear.

On the battlefield, an elephant’s main use was to intimidate and charge the enemy, stampeding through troop formations and breaking their ranks. Soldiers not used to facing such a daunting animal charging towards them at 20mph would have been terrified.

War elephants played key roles in Southern Han victories in medieval China such as the invasion of Chuin AD 948. But the Southern Han elephant corps was ultimately defeated at Shao in AD 971, annihilated by crossbow fire from troops of the Song Dynasty. The invention of gunpowder and the advent of cannon spelled the end for elephants of war.



It has been speculated that early man used wild beasts in their conflicts, an idea which has been popularised in various films depicting ancient wars where tigers battle soldiers and Generals ride majestic woolly mammoths.

Lucretius, a Roman historian of the 1st century BC, was of this mind, proposing that early humans may have set animals such as lions or ‘savage boars’ against their foes, but with little success and, more often than not, disastrous consequences.

A more efficacious use of pigs in ancient warfare is reported: their ability to terrify war elephants.  According to Pliny the Elder, ‘elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of the hog’, a fact backed up Aelian, who confirms that in 275 BC the Romans exploited squealing pigs as a counter-measure against the war elephants of Pyrrhus. The method involved dowsing the pigs in flammable tar or resin, setting them alight, and driving them towards the elephants.

In History of the Wars, Procopius describes the 6th century AD Siege of Edessa and recounts how the defenders of the city hung a squealing pig from the walls to scare away the single siege elephant in Khosrau’s army.

The Macedonian military writer Polyaenus includes accounts of the use of incendiary pigs, while Aelian reports that Antigonus II Gonatas’ 266 BC siege of Megara was finally broken when the Megarians drove flaming pigs towards the enemy’s massed war elephants. The elephants bolted in fright from the blazing, squealing pigs, killing great numbers of their own soldiers.



Man’s best friend must be beginning to question his title. Used by nations throughout the ages, from the Egyptians, Greeks, and Persians, to the Sarmatians, Alans, and Slavs, dogs have long been a feature of war. The Romans trained the Molossian dog (or Canis Molossus) specifically for battle, often coating them in protective spiked metal collars and mail armour, and arranging them into attack formations.

During late antiquity, Attila the Hun sent huge Molossian-type dogs as well as Talbots ­– larger ancestors of the Bloodhound – into battle to wreak havoc upon his European enemies. At this time, war-dog breeding stock was a fasionable gift among European royalty.

The Norman invaders of Britain used Mastiffs in their attempts to conquer the Irish, who in turn used Irish Wolfhounds to bring down Norman knights on horseback.

Spanish conquistadors supposedly trained armoured dogs to kill and disembowel their enemies when they invaded the lands controlled by South American natives, while during the Seven Years’ War, Frederick the Great used dogs as messengers.

The practice of taking dogs to the battlefield gradually disappeared with the modernisation of long-distance weapons. On Okinawa during WWII, an entire platoon of Japanese soldiers and their attack dogs were quickly annihilated by US troops. The Russians also tried to train dogs to carry bombs under German tanks, but soon found that they either ran away in terror from the dreadful noise of a Panzer or took shelter under the familiar smelling Russian tanks with the bombs still strapped to them.

Another WWII program was suggested by the Swiss William A Prestre, who proposed using large dogs to kill Japanese soldiers. He persuaded the military to use an entire Mississippi island to develop the project, where the army hoped to train as many as two million dogs. The plan was to use the dogs as a first wave of attack during island invasions, with landing craft unleashing thousands of dogs on the Japanese defenders. The attack would be followed up by US troops as the Japanese fled in confusion.

But with few Japanese soldiers with which to train the dogs, the animals’ lack of response to the training, and their terror when exposed to shellfire, the multi-million dollar program was cancelled.



Formidable as they appear, whether or not a rhinoceros would be of any use to anyway in a battle is still hotly contended. Following the release of the film 300, debate has been sparked regarding the validity of the rhinoceros in warfare. While few believe it was actually used by the Achaemenid Persians at Thermopylae as the film suggests, there is evidence pointing to its use in another time, on the other side of Europe.

A woodcut (pictured) created by German painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer in 1515 seemed to illustrate the use of heavily armoured rhinos used by Portuguese soldiers to combat war elephants. Other evidence suggest that the Ahoms – the people of Assam in the Far North East India – used Rhinos like early tanks, heavily intoxicating them before giving them a sudden shock and sending them towards the enemy units. The back of the woodcut offers further clues.

An engraving records: ‘On the first of May in the year 1513 AD, the powerful King of Portugal, Manuel of Lisbon, brought such a living animal from India, called the rhinoceros. This is an accurate representation. It is the colour of a speckled tortoise, and is almost entirely covered with thick scales. It is the size of an elephant but has shorter legs and is almost invulnerable. It has a strong pointed horn on the tip of its nose, which it sharpens on stones. It is the mortal enemy of the elephant. The elephant is afraid of the rhinoceros, for, when they meet, the rhinoceros charges with its head between its front legs and rips open the elephant’s stomach, against which the elephant is unable to defend itself. The rhinoceros is so well-armed that the elephant cannot harm it. It is said that the rhinoceros is fast, impetuous, and cunning.’

Surprisingly, Dürer had never actually seen a rhinoceros. His woodcut ­– and his later ink drawing – were based on a written description of a rhinoceros by Moravian Printer Valentim Fernandes, who had seen the rhinoceros being pitted against a young elephant in a Lisbon spectacle hosted by King Manuel. And so his armour-plated warrior beast was probably nothing more than a remarkably accurate illustration of something he had never laid eyes on, and his inscription was nothing more than speculation based on popular contemporary stories.



Animal mascots have long been an important part of British Army regiments’ morale. Dogs, goats, ponies, and antelope are just a few of the many species to have held the prestigious title. The latter is the mascot of the Fusiliers, who founded the tradition over 140 years ago when the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (later the Fusiliers) adopted a live antelope as mascot when it was stationed in India in 1871. It was an Indian black buck antelope named Billy, a name which stuck to its successors for many years.

A well-known maharajah made a gift of the second Billy, presenting it to the 1st Battalion, The Royal Warwickshire Regiment at around 1877. It came home with the battalion in 1880 and died in Ireland in 1888. There were two endless streams of supply of these animals: the battalion serving in India usually received them as gifts from the maharajahs, while the home battalion was given theirs by the London Zoo.

The Mercian Regiment chose a Swalesdale ram as their mascot. Private Derby, as the ram is known, was the mascot of the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment, who in turn had inherited him from the 95th Derbyshire Regiment.

The first Private Derby was adopted as a mascot in 1858 by the 95th (Derbyshire) Regiment of Foot at the siege and capture of Kotah during the Indian Mutiny Campaign of 1857-1858.

A fine fighting ram was spotted tethered to a temple yard by a commanding officer, who ordered that the ram be taken into the Army’s possession. The ram was named Private Derby and marched nearly 3,000 miles in its five-year service with the regiment before it died in 1863. Since then, there has followed a succession of fine rams, each of which has inherited the official title of Private Derby followed by his succession number.

Bizarrely, the Army recognises each Private Derby as a soldier and each has its own regimental number and documentation. Private Derby is a source of immense pride among the regiment, and he is always to be seen on parade with the soldiers; one of the tasks he undertakes in return for his daily pay of £3.75. In addition, he is also on the ration strength and draws his own rations like any other soldier. Private Derby even has a leave card and takes an annual holiday during the mating season.


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