The use of animals in warfare dates back thousands of years, perhaps even to the tribal conflicts of early man. From cavalry charges to carrying vital messages, animals from many species have been utilized on the battlefield. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that those animals were given recognition. In 1943, long-time animal welfare pioneer and founder of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, Maria Dickin, instituted the PDSA Dickin medal to recognize outstanding acts of bravery and devotion to duty by non-human combatants. The award is available to all animals serving in any military or civil defense force across all nations and is considered the highest award received by an animal that goes above and beyond the call of duty. In some of these cases, the animals have found their way into the ranks. Whether through heroic deeds or through time-honored tradition, these animals have been entered into the official documents as enlisted soldiers, with the ability to earn promotions, demotions, and some special privileges. Here are just a few of these creatures.
In 1942, Polish troops in Iran traded for a bear cub whose mother had been killed in the mountains. They named the orphaned cub Wojtek (pronounced Voytek) and raised him as a mascot for the 22nd Transport Company, Artillery Division, Polish 2nd Corps. As he matured, Wojtek would often drink beer and smoke with the men. He was also fond of wrestling with some of the braver troops. But as a fully matured adult bear, he could no longer be classed as a mascot due to his size. So when Wojtek was refused passage on a troopship bound for Italy, his comrades decided to enlist him into the company, complete with a service number and paybook. Although this was frowned upon at first, he was eventually allowed to live amongst the Polish soldiers. Wojtek saw combat at the Battle of Monte Cassino and surprised the gunners by carrying crates of artillery shells from the trucks closer to the guns. Wojtek often copied the troops in their day-to-day actions and had watched his human handlers carrying the artillery shells. Witnesses claimed that the fully grown bear was strong enough to carry boxes that usually took two or more men to lift and never dropped a single one. In recognition of this act, the Polish 22nd transport company adopted an image of a bear carrying an artillery shell as their emblem. Wojtek would eventually rise to the rank of Corporal, retiring after the war to live out his days in Edinburgh Zoo.
In 1952 during the Korean war, the US Marines would purchase a chestnut-colored mare from a Stablehand in Seoul. Called Flame by her previous owners, the Marines needed her to supply ammunition along mountainous terrain to the recoilless rifle platoon of the 5th Marine Regiment. The Marines would come to call her Reckless, which was a shortened version of the word recoilless. Reckless was trained as any typical soldier fresh on the frontlines in what the troops called “hoof camp”. She learned how to take cover and avoid obstacles, but was also known to be a free spirit, often visiting the soldiers in their tents. She would earn the respect of the Marines at the battle of Panmunjom-Vegas in 1953 when she carried 386 recoilless rounds in 51 trips up to the firing sites completely solo and often returning with wounded. Reckless only needed to be led on a route a few times before she could make the journey without a handler. During the three days of fighting, Reckless was wounded twice. For her actions in the battle, she was promoted to Corporal, eventually reaching the rank of Staff Sergeant after the war. She would also receive several medals, including the Marine Corps good conduct medal, two purple hearts, and the Dickin medal posthumously awarded in 2016. Retired in 1960, Reckless lived at Camp Pendleton until 1968. When she died, she was buried with full military honors.
Sergeant Stubby was a dog of an unknown breed but possibly part American bull terrier. He was found wandering around the grounds of Yale University in 1917 by members of the 102nd Infantry. As he spent time with the troops, they developed a fondness for him and snuck him onto their troopship headed for France. With the 102nd Infantry, Stubby saw plenty of combat and was even wounded by a hand grenade in 1918 near Seicheprey. He was also injured by mustard gas and, after recovering, was given a specially made gas mask in case of further gas attacks. Stubby’s exploits would come to be recognized by the officers of the 102nd Infantry when he captured a German spy behind their lines. For this, they awarded him the rank of Sergeant. He spent much of the war locating and comforting the wounded, warning his comrades of attack, and generally boosting morale in the trenches. Stubby even received a handmade coat for him to wear his medals on. It was made for him by the people of Château-Thierry as thanks after the town was liberated. After the war, Stubby had survived 17 battles and was smuggled back to the USA, where he was treated like a celebrity and even met three serving US presidents. Stubby died in 1926, but rather grimly, his body was preserved via taxidermy and can now be viewed at the Smithsonian Americans at war exhibit.
William Windsor I
Since 1844 a Kashmir goat from the crown’s royal herd is selected and presented to the British army. Although several of these regimental goats have served during wartime, William (Billy) Windsor I is probably the most infamous. He was presented to the Royal Welch Fusiliers by Queen Elizabeth II in 2001, not as a mascot but as a ranking member of the Regiment. Complete with his very own service number, the Regimental Goat is entitled to a ration of cigarettes and stout ale, while soldiers of a lesser rank must stand to attention when approached by the goat. But while holding the rank of Lance Corporal, Billy was charged with unacceptable behavior and disobeying a direct order by his commanding officer in 2006. This event had occurred during a celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s 80th birthday in Cyprus. Billy had given a terrible performance during a parade and had even tried to headbutt one of the drummers. As a result, he was demoted to Fusilier but would regain his rank after improved behavior a few months later. Billy retired in 2009 and was replaced by William Windsor II.