“The Animals’ War”

 May 26, 2007–January 6, 2008; Imperial War Museum North Manchester, U.K.

 In World War I, a staggering 256,000 horses and mules died in service with the British army. While the armed forces were largely mechanized by World War II, Britain still relied on animal labor, particularly in the Far East, where heavy jungle often bogged down vehicles and armor. Even today soldiers depend on animals, particularly dogs. “The Animals’ War,” at the Imperial War Museum North, in Manchester, honors their sacrifice then and now.

The exhibition offers a family-friendly mix of interactive displays and the real-life exploits of standout animals in the history of combat. “We reflect on the nature of wartime companionship between people and animals, the lengths people went to looking after their pets in difficult circumstances, and the animals who involuntarily became involved in war,” says exhibitions manager David Hopkins.

One exhibit recounts the story of Simon the cat, who served on HMS Amethyst during the 1949 Yangtze Incident. Though badly wounded, Simon remained at his post, catching the ship’s rats and raising sailors’ morale. He was subsequently awarded the Dickin Medal, often described as the animal Victoria Cross. Recent accounts highlight the Dickin-decorated spaniel, Buster, who sniffed out a large arms cache in southern Iraq in 2003, and Roselle, a Labrador who led her blind owner from the 78th floor of the World Trade Center following the 9/11 attacks.

“The Animals’ War” also delves beneath the stories and activities to examine the implications of using animals at war. “Although we describe these animals as heroes, they don’t have that much choice,” explains Michael Simpson, head of exhibitions. “We treat the animals’ stories very respectfully.”

The exhibition is free, and Manchester is within easy reach of London by car or train. For online information, visit [http://north.iwm.org.uk].

 

Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.