Remembering the Animals That Died at War


As Remembrance Sunday approaches, millions of people across the UK will wear artificial poppies as a sign of respect and commemoration to the nation’s war dead. The red poppy is commonly worn to express unequivocal support for The Royal British Legion’s charity work through the Poppy Appeal. The emphasis this year: “is the need to help the Afghan generation of the Armed Forces and their families – today and for the rest of their lives”.

For personal or political reasons some will choose to wear a white poppy. The white poppy was introduced by the Women’s Co-operative Guild in 1933 as a symbol of peace and an end to all wars. The Peace Pledge Union, who produce the white poppies today, believe that “90 years after the end of the ‘war to end all wars’ we still have a long way to go to put an end to a social institution, which in the last decade alone killed over 10 million children.” Despite the anti-militaristic sentiments behind the white poppy, the British Legion argue that the red poppy can also symbolise the hope for an end to all wars. Only the red poppy is sold by the British Legion, with donations going to help ex-servicemen and women and their families.

A growing number of people can also be seen wearing purple poppies, which commemorate the colossal number of animals that ‘served’, suffered and died in the human wars and conflicts of the 20th century. Millions of animals have been used in wars: as messengers, for detection, for scouting and rescue, as beasts of burden or on the frontline. The Dickin Medal has been awarded to animals on the frontline that have shown extreme bravery, often saving human lives. Whilst these few animals are remembered, the millions of animals that continue to be subjected to horrific warfare experiments are forgotten.

Among the senseless slaughter of the First World War more than eight million horses died whilst transporting ammunition, supplies or men to the frontline. Countless mules and donkeys were abandoned and starved to death. More than 100,000 pigeons ‘served’ Britain during the war, but less than one in eight of the birds dropped in occupied countries survived. At the outbreak of war in 1914, 7,000 people offered their dogs to the army, thousands were taken to their death as messengers but many others, deemed unsuitable for operations, were euthanized or shot.

During the Second World War 200,000 pigeons were used by the British army, and thousands of animals were sent to their death to ‘draw enemy fire’. Thousands of dogs, on the home front or with the army, helped to rescue the wounded from bombed buildings.

As the 20th century progressed, governments deduced that they could use animals to cheaply and efficiently massacre fellow humans. Rats with electrodes wired into their brains to harness their sense of smell have been used by the military for danger detection; earlier American military scientists surgically attached bombs to bats in an unsuccessful experiment. Revelations in 2004 that Britain had similarly attempted to use pigeons as flying bombs during the Second World War caused the late Labour politician Tony Banks to urge the House of Commons to agree that:

‘This House is appalled, but barely surprised, at the revelations…regarding the bizarre and inhumane proposals to use pigeons as flying bombs; recognises the important and live-saving role of carrier pigeons in two world wars and wonders at the lack of gratitude towards these gentle creatures; and believes that humans represent the most obscene, perverted, cruel, uncivilised and lethal species ever to inhabit the planet and looks forward to the day when the inevitable asteroid slams into the earth and wipes them out thus giving nature the opportunity to start again’.

Humans have also endeavoured to perfect methods of killing each other by practicing on animals. Since it first opened in 1916 millions of animals have suffered and died at the biological and chemical research centre at Porton Down in Wiltshire. In 2005 more than 21,000 animals were subject to military experiments at Porton Down. Indeed, the number of animals used in weapons research in British laboratories quadrupled between 1997 and 2007, at the hands of both the Ministry of Defence and private firms.

Animals including dogs, cats and monkeys are used to test the killing power of biological and chemical weapons. Dogs have been sprayed with riot control gas and monkeys dosed with the nerve agent soman or exposed to anthrax. Animals are habitually tied up and shot so that medics can practise battlefield surgery. Millions of mice and ferrets have been used in poisoning experiments, all to satisfy the thirst for destruction of a cruel, uncivilised and lethal species. 

I’ll wear a purple poppy to remember all the animal victims of war: from the 30,000 camels killed in the Crimean War to the dolphins sent to search for mines today, and to support Animal Aid, an organisation campaigning for the end to the barbaric experiments that continue today. Like millions of human victims of war, these animals had no choice.

  • Purple poppies can be ordered for £1 from Animal Aid at:
  • On this year’s Armistice Day, November 11, a short ceremony of remembrance will be staged at the Animals In War Memorial, off Park Lane, London – at 2pm. Special guest speaker will be internationally renowned human and animal rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.

Discussion1 Comment

  1. avatar

    It please me no end to see that this forgotten army are gradually getting the recognition they so rightly deserve. PLease take a look at (Please note Margaret spelt margret in this instance) i am campaigning to get the Margret Barker wreath laid at as many localities around the country for the cenenary of WW 1. I laid it last year in London and I have laid it for the last 3 years in my local town. it has been laid in Mid Wales and in Sommerset and this year it was laid in Australia for Anzac’s day. help margaret’s dream (she 85 and blind) become a reality, read her story, it can’t fail to move you. thank

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