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Let Slip the (Real) Dogs of War

This series of blogs supports a new exhibition at Hall’s Croft: ‘Cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war’ – The First World War, Shakespeare, and Stratford. The exhibition and blog project are supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Ann McDermott
topsells book of beasts dog
A group of dogs depicted in Edward Topsell’s ‘The history of four-footed beasts and serpents’ 1572 – 1625. Shakespeare is likely to have used such books for research purposes.

Shakespeare writes that Henry V had at his heels, like hounds awaiting employment, “famine, sword and fire" while Antony talks of letting "slip the dogs of war"..... but were dogs ever really used in warfare?

The answer is yes. Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans and Britons all used war dogs in ancient times. More surprisingly perhaps, they were also used much more recently during the First World War. At this time it was common for dogs to pull milk carts in Belgium and Holland - in fact, they are still used for this purpose in some villages in France - so perhaps using them to pull or transport other items during war didn't seem so very different.

The Stratford Herald of the 5th of February, 1915, quotes from the Windsor Magazine saying that dogs of war "have come in the present campaign to convey much more that a poetical symbol." Small dogs were used to carry pistols or messages to and from the front, while large dogs were yoked to machine guns to drag them along. The article goes on to say that each army had their favourite breed. The large, loyal Airedale was the favourite of the British Army and some three thousand of these dogs were used, along with the intelligent collie. The German Army used collies, pointers, and Airedales. The Russian Army worked with Alsatians, and the Austrian Army favoured Dalmatians.

Dogs were easy to keep concealed and safe in the trenches and were usually reliable. It is estimated that about one million dogs were killed in the Great War. Sgt. Stubby, an American pit bull terrier, was the most decorated dog of war and they say he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant because of his exceptional service.

A veterinarian friend told me that there are not so many Airedales around now; perhaps many were lost in the war. Another friend has an elderly Airedale who has a lovely nature, but like many of her breed, she prefers the couch to walkies, an unlikely soldier! Perhaps “Cry 'havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war” is a little unfair to the wonderful, helpful creatures who, no doubt, saved many lives in the Great War.