Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Bingo, the trench dog

Jackie, South African baboon
Welsh Fusiliers goat

The pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille kept two lion cubs (Whiskey and Soda); the 2nd Battalion of the Welsh Regiment had a goat (Taffy IV); the South African 3rd Trasvaal Regiment awarded a baboon named Jackie the rank of Private; Australians took a koala to war with them, and the American 102nd Infantry Regiment proudly boasted the most decorated dog of the First World War, Sergeant Stubby, who participated in seventeen engagements and was wounded twice.*

The British Imperial War Museum estimates that at least 16 million animals served in the First World War, assisting in military efforts.**  The role of horses in the war has received increased attention since the 1982 publication of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel War Horse (as well as the release of the award-winning play and movie based on the book), but other animals also played a critical part.  Camels, mules, donkeys, canaries, pigeons, cats, and dogs were used to transport supplies, detect gas attacks, send messages, hunt rats, rescue the wounded, scout enemy territory, and keep watch as sentries. 

Care for wounded horses, WWI postcard from "The Sphere" (newspaper)
Just as importantly, animals provided comfort and companionship, reminding soldiers of home and of the ordinariness of life before the war. Many units had mascots, and soldiers often smuggled pets with them or adopted stray animals they found at the front. Cats were popular for their prowess in killing the millions of rats that swarmed the trenches, but for many soldiers, dogs were fondly regarded as man’s best friend. It is estimated that over 50,000 dogs accompanied the armies on both sides of the conflict. 

Tragically, animals also became military targets and casualties of war. It is estimated that as many as eight million horses died during the First World War, and countless other animals were also killed in the line of duty.  Edward de Stein, an officer in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, wrote in memory of a trench dog who had endeared himself to all who knew him.

ELEGY ON THE DEATH OF BINGO, OUR TRENCH DOG
                        —by the Trench Bard (Major E. De Stein)

Weep, weep, ye dwellers in the delvèd earth,
Ah, weep, ye watchers by the dismal shore
Of No Man's Land, for Bingo is no more;
Northumberland Fusilier with Sammy, the regimental dog
He is no more, and well ye knew his worth,
For whom on bully-beefless days were kept
Rare bones by each according to his means,
And, while the Quartermaster-Sergeant slept,
The elusive pork was rescued from the beans.
He is no more, and, impudently brave,
The loathly rats sit grinning on his grave.

Him mourn the grimy cooks and bombers ten,
The sentinels in lonely posts forlorn,
The fierce patrols with hands and tunics torn,
The furtive band of sanitary men.
The murmuring sound of grief along the length
Of traversed trench the startled Hun could hear;
The Captain, as he struck him off the strength,
Let fall a sad and solitary tear;
'Tis even said a batman passing by
Had seen the Sergeant-Major wipe his eye.

The fearful fervour of the feline chase
He never knew, poor dog, he never knew;
Content with optimistic zeal to woo
Reluctant rodents in this murky place,
He never played with children on clean grass,
Nor dozed at ease beside the glowing embers,
Nor watched with hopeful eye the tea-cakes pass,
Nor smelt the heather-smell of Scotch Septembers,
For he was born amid a world at war
Although unrecking what we struggled for.

Yet who shall say that Bingo was unblest
Though all his Sprattless life was passed beneath
The roar of mortars and the whistling breath
Of grim, nocturnal heavies going west?
Unmoved he heard the evening hymn of hate,
Unmoved would gaze into his master's eyes.
For all the sorrows men for men create
In search of happiness wise dogs despise,
Finding ecstatic joy in every rag
And every smile of friendship worth a wag.

The poem displays a tender humor as it uses formal language and an elevated style to mourn the loss of a small dog with the undignified name of “Bingo.”  Although he was “impudently brave,” the poem provides no list of the animal’s heroic deeds, and yet “well ye knew his worth.”

Bingo’s value lay in how well he was loved. Men showed their devotion to the dog by sneaking bones from food rations and stealthily liberating pork from beans – treats that were then shared with Bingo. From the highest military authorities to the lowliest sanitation men assigned to maintain the unit’s latrines, everyone loved the trench dog. Across ranks and assignments—cooks, gunners, sergeants and lonely sentinels— all felt his loss; some wept.

Sergeant Stubby, mascot of the AEF's 102nd Regiment
Bingo lived a short and hard life, never experiencing the simple doggy delights of chasing a cat, playing with children, or sleeping beside the calm safety of a hearth, “For he was born amid a world at war.” The war shaped the dog’s life, though he knew nothing of its causes or purpose.  Instead, he found his purpose in love. Above the roar of the guns, Bingo’s ears were tuned to his master’s voice. Surrounded by the chaos of human hate and killing, he “Unmoved would gaze into his master’s eyes.” Smiles and unlooked for treats brought him ecstatic joy and reminded his human friends of the precious worth of friendships formed during war. 



*Statistics on Sergeant Stubby are from Alan Taylor’s “World War I in Photos: Animals at War,” posted to the Atlantic website 27 April 2014.  Those wishing to learn more about Stubby may be interested in Ann Bausum’s book Sergeant Stubby: How a Stray Dog and His Best Friend Helped Win World War I and Stole the Heart of a Nation.
**Imperial War Museum website, “15 Animals that Went to War.
† Spratt's was the first company to mass-produce dog biscuits. 

2 comments:

  1. The stanza on the life he didn't lead was rather touching, I thought.

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  2. Well done, Major DeStein.

    One quibble with the interpretation: it was the rats who, "impudently brave," sat grinning on his grave, because he was no longer around to keep them away. A good dog.

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