They’ve never been able to figure out exactly how many men died during the first World War.
So it’s a safe bet that there’s no body count for the 4-footed and 2-winged creatures who gave their lives in the fight. The “animal veterans,” as Leah Tams calls them, pulled artillery, transported soldiers, located wounded men on the battlefields and carried messages.
And cats were there to see the action. In a war that saw men stuck in trenches and picking off rats with their bayonets, cats were a godsend. “Throughout the ‘war to end all wars,’ cats were a common sight in the trenches and aboard ships, where they hunted mice and rats,” says Mark Strauss. “Beyond their ‘official’ duties, they were also embraced as mascots and pets by the soldiers and sailors with whom they served.”
Cats in the Trenches
An estimated 500,000 felines served in the trenches of WWI. “In the trenches of the Western front there were serious problems with rats,” observes Ben Mercer of Ancestry.com. “As you can imagine, wherever you have food, and unfortunately decaying bodies, there were rats and it was the cat’s job to keep them at bay.”
Aside from doing rodent patrol, cats were also used to detect gas. (This was, after all, the first war that saw the large-scale use of chemical warfare.) The Brits “drafted” 500 felines for this particular duty; it was a canary-in-a-coal-mine mission, as cats succumbed much more quickly to the fumes than humans did.
One cat saved a soldier’s life in a more dramatic fashion. Pitouchi had been born in the trenches; his mother had been killed when he was a kitten, and he’d been adopted by a Belgian soldier, Lieutenant Lekeux.
Lekeux was hiding in a shell hole, sketching the enemy’s artillery works. A German soldier on patrol sighted him and called out to his comrades.
Spooked by the sound, Pitouchi “jumped out of the hole onto a piece of timber,” writes Susan Bulanda in her book Soldiers in Fur and Feathers. The Germans “fired two shots at Pitouchi. However, as frightened as he was, Pitouchi was not hit, and he jumped back into the hole with his beloved Lekeux.”
The Germans, figuring that they’d made a mistake, laughed it off and went on their way. Lekeux returned to camp with the vital drawings completed and Pitouchi on his shoulder.
Mousers at Sea
Even more cats did their tours of duty on ships during World War I.
“Without the presence of cats, a crew might find their ship overrun with rats and mice that would eat into the provisions, chew through ropes and spread disease,” points out the U.S. Naval Institute. “The more superstitious sailors believed that cats protected them by bringing good luck.”
There are many photographs testifying to this bond. A sailor from the H.M.A.S. Melbourne poses with the ship’s cats — 1 tucked under each arm — and a determined smile. Togo, “the pet of the ‘Dreadnought,’” is shown “‘on watch’ in the muzzle of the [battleship’s] 12th gun.”
And Minnie, according to the caption on her photo, “took part in the landing at Gallipoli” in 1915. Actually, Minnie looked as though was she was getting ready to pounce on a string that an unknown sailor was trailing for her. We’ll assume that she was providing moral support.
Check out these photos of cats who served in WWI:
A 1915 British intelligence report mentions 2 cats and a dog who had been frequently been seen moving back and forth along enemy lines. Paranoia was running high, and officers began wondering if German troops were using the animals to relay messages. Nobody knows what the upshot was, but hopefully the trio escaped the traps being set for them.
Felix the cat wasn’t so lucky. During the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, Felix went back and forth between Allied and German troops, carrying friendly messages tucked in his collar. A French general decided not to take chances and had the cat shot for treason.
The story found its way into the film Joyeux Noel (2005) and an anti-war poem. The poet, Heathcote Williams, writes movingly about the “peace cat,/Who’s barely ever mentioned/But whose bloodstained paw-prints/Are a lone, feline testament/To war’s absurdity.”
The story of cats during the Great War is, like all war stories, a mixed one. But those old photographs are what stay with us, reminding us of how during one of history’s darkest times, cats provided soldiers and sailors with comfort and aid.