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Boy, Prince Rupert's poodle

3 famous animals from history

While human beings make up the vast majority of historically important figures, there are many animals that have performed courageous and significant actions.

Image: Boy the Poodle was said to be invincible | Public Domain

1. Cher Ami

There are numerous examples of animals being used in war, and despite the massive leaps forward in military technology, the First World War was no exception. While most people know about the use of horses in World War I, the use of pigeons to carry messages is less well-known.

Cher Ami (meaning ‘Dear Friend’ in French) was one such pigeon. He was born on 21st April 1918 in Britain as the end of the First World War was on the horizon. He was gifted to the American forces during the Meuse Argonne offensive in October 1918.

During the offensive, 550 American troops found themselves stuck behind German lines. As the men sank into puddles of mud and gore, they were attacked repeatedly by German forces and Allied artillery forces that were intended to support them but were unaware of their current position.

After days of gruesome fighting and friendly fire, Major Charles White Whittlesey began to send out carrier pigeons as all the runners he sent out had been shot dead. The first two pigeons sent out were noticed and were also shot dead. With no other hope, Whittlesey sent out Cher Ami with a message imploring the Allied artillery to stop firing on their position.

The men’s hopes seemed to have been dashed yet again when Cher Ami was shot out of the sky. However, the brave bird rose from the ground, having been blinded in one eye by the bullet, with one leg hanging on by a tendon.

Despite his injuries, Cher Ami made it back to the headquarters. His rapid delivery allowed the artillerymen to redirect their fire and for the remaining 194 men to return safely to base.

Cher Ami was saved by army medics, but his injuries led to complications later in life. He died on 13th June 1919, having won Croix de Guerre and Oak Leaf Cluster and being one of the first ever animals to be posthumously awarded the Animals in Peace and War Medal of Bravery.

2. Boy

A more mysterious and stranger example of an animal being used in war is the pet poodle of Prince Rupert of the Rhine. Prince Rupert fought for the Royalist cause during the English Civil War as did his poodle named Boy, who accompanied him into every battle and was said to have magical powers.

Parliamentarian reports claimed that the dog was the familiar of a witch, summoned to fight alongside his master. Others claimed he was the Devil in disguise. These became subjects of mockery by Royalist satirists, who lampooned these superstitions by claiming that Boy was invincible, could catch bullets before they hit his master and that he could predict the future.

Unfortunately for the poor dog, none of those things were true. At the Battle of Marston, the Royalist forces under Rupert were surprised and engaged by a larger force and were subsequently routed by the Parliamentarian cavalry led by Oliver Cromwell.

Boy was killed when his master abandoned him. While the story of Boy presents a charming image of how animals could be used in propagandist satire, it also speaks to the disposable nature of animal lives in the machine of war.

3. Corporal Wojtek

It makes sense that the animals most often used for war are tamed animals who can be trained to follow orders. But Wojtek was a much less typical and practical species of animal to be drafted into a war.

After the fall of Poland on 6th October 1939, an army of Polish soldiers was formed in the Soviet Union called Anders Army. These forces were allowed to leave the Soviet Union through Iran to join the Allied Forces in the North African campaign. One group of Polish soldiers encountered a boy with a bear cub whose mother had been killed by hunters. The soldiers took him in, christening him Wojtek.

The men nursed the cub on condensed milk in an empty vodka bottle. Eventually he moved on to solid foods and was even given beer, which quickly became his favorite drink. He also learned to smoke cigarettes, though he ate them more often than not. He also came to imitate the soldiers, marching on his hind legs, learning to salute them and engaging in wrestling matches.

When the men were enrolled into the British Army, they were forbidden from bringing Wojtek with them, considering him to be a pet or mascot animal. To get around this, they promoted Wojtek to the rank of Private. After aiding the soldiers at the Battle of Monte Cassino by carrying 45kg artillery shells in his arms, Wojtek was promoted to Corporal.

After the war, Wojtek was given to Edinburgh Zoo and became a favourite of visitors. Some of the soldiers Wojtek had served came to visit him and threw him cigarettes which he gladly ate. He even appeared on an episode of Blue Peter. But after a long and celebrated life, Wojtek died peacefully on 2nd December 1963.