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Four-Legged Foot Soldiers

Leah Meisel

From the time men discovered the art of battle, four-legged warriors have been fighting alongside them. And even though camels have been replaced with tanks and elephants with APCs, furry and feathered friends are still used by today’s most sophisticated fighting forces.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Some fifty men gathered at a war memorial in London’s Hyde Park last November with bowed heads and morose expressions in a show of mourning for heroes fallen in battle. They stood in silence before the “Animals in War” memorial, which pays tribute aminals that died in battle and were awarded the UK’s PDSA Dickin Medal. Sixty-three furry friends received the coveted medallion since the honor was instituted in 1943 by PSDA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals) founder Maria Dickin. The award is presented to animals displaying conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving or associated with any branch of the armed forces. Among the honored fallen are horses, mules, dogs, elephants, camels, pigeons, canaries, cats, and even glowworms — all of which had sacrificed their lives for their country. The inscription reads: “This monument is dedicated to all the animals that served and died alongside British and Allied forces in wars and campaigns throughout time. They had no choice.”

But not all memorial participants were teary-eyed. Some were angry. “Victims in vain!” shouted several protesters who refused to leave the site until promised a memorial for all creatures suffering without reason at the hands of men, not necessarily for a war effort.


Live Tanks

Even before man knew how many molars a horse had, or an elephant’s IQ, he knew how to use animals for his own needs. And one of man’s most urgent historical needs is to fight other men.

Horses have always been an integral part of warfare. The ancient Sumerians and Acadians used horses to settle border altercations, establish water rights, and solve discontent between nations. And think of Pharaoh and his chariots. As early as 1600 BCE, chariot warfare was common throughout the Ancient Near East, and historians have even found a written manual for training war horses to fight each other in the faithful service of their human masters.

Throughout history, as the role of cavalry expanded, horses served as a reliable and efficient means of transportation, and until the outbreak of World War I, were the counterpart to today’s tanks. It is estimated that a million horses fell in the American War of Independence, and that six million horses died in World War I, the last war in which they served.

Elephants were equally brave fighters, in addition to the psychological element of fear that they commanded in their opponents due to their sheer size. One elephant was enough to fell an entire army unit, and a face-to-face encounter alone was more than enough to make one run for cover.

Hannibal (248–182 BCE), a Carthaginian military commander and tactician considered one of the most talented commanders in history, painted the ears of his elephants with phosphorescent colors to boost their fear factor, and this was one of the tactics that helped him defeat the Romans in northern Italy, which his army occupied for fifteen years.

But for all the advantages of its huge size, the elephant has one small failing — when confronted by the loud sounds of battle, it simply goes berserk and stampedes in panic. The army elephant has long since been relegated to history in favor of braver creatures.

Camels played the role of today’s armored personnel carrier. In ancient times, they were perfect for the Arab desert nomads of Northern African. A quiet, gentle creature, the camel can survive for many days on end without food or water. It is also fearless and capable of storming an enemy. When horses smell the presence of camels, they become restless and even hysterical, perhaps out of fear of this strange animal. The drawback? Camels are only effective on their home turf. Take them out of the desert and they lose their military advantage.


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