We recently added some images to the web site from a fascinating book - 'British War Dogs' by Lt-Col. Edwin Hautenville Richardson, published in 1920.
Lt-Col. Richardson (pictured below) was Commandant of the British War Dog School, which he established in 1917 in order to train dogs principally to act as messengers and sentries close to the front line. A dog enthusiast from an early age, Richardson studied the history of canines' role in warfare and, after attending Sandhurst and serving in the Sherwood Foresters, he settled down with his wife Blanche, a fellow dog-lover, to train dogs on the farm they had bought at Carnoustie on the east coast of Scotland.
When war broke out in 1914, there were no military dogs of any sort attached to the British Army save for one sole Airedale, who served with the 2nd Battalion Norfolk Regiment as a sentry and accompanied the battalion to France where it was eventually killed by a shell on the Aisne. Richardson however, was convinced of the essential role dogs could fill in wartime and had built up a large kennel of dogs who underwent experimental training to this purpose. He visited the Continent frequently to gather tips and information and to observe the extent that dogs were used by the police forces and armies abroad - he was even in Russia three weeks before war broke out acting as a judge at army trials of military dogs. The two other judges present were German.
It was Germany, he noted, which had the most advanced and methodical system for training military dogs, but they lacked the variety of dog breeds available in Britain. Indeed, he had even observed German military personnel buying collie dogs in England for express use by the German Army.
In early August 1914, Richardson offered his services to the British Red Cross Society and travelled with some trained ambulance dogs to Belgium, but he arrived in Brussels, just as the Germans were entering the city and so left immediately and made his way back to Britain via Ostend. It soon became clear that ambulance dogs could not be used practically; they were being shot and killed without regard to the wearing of the Red Cross.
Instead, Richardson began to supply dogs for sentry and patrol work finding that Airedale Terriers displayed the ideal combination of qualities. It was in response to a letter from an officer from the Royal Artillery in the winter of 1916, that Richardson turned his attention to training dogs specifically as messengers. The officer pointed out that trained dogs would be able to keep up communication between his outpost and the battery during a heavy bombardment, when noise and communication difficulties rendered telephones practically useless and when the risk to human runners was enormous. Richardson, after a number of experiments, successfully trained two Airedales to carry messages for two miles without a hitch and on New Year's Eve, the two dogs, named Wolf and Prince, departed for France.
One of their first tasks was to carry a message four miles to brigade headquarters from the front line through a smoke barrage, a task completed within an hour. It soon became clear that dogs were faster, steadier, more nimble across shell holes and muddy terrain, and more difficult to spot than human messengers. The two dogs were trailblazers. With Wolf and Prince having proved the usefulness of dogs at the front, demand for more messenger dogs grew and Lt-Col. Richardson was asked by the War Office to establish his British War Dog School in 1917.
Initially, dog handlers were drawn from those battalions whose commanding officers had expressed a wish to have dispatch dogs, but soon, in order to fully exploit the potential of dogs, the keepers and their dogs were collected into a central kennel at Etaples, where they were then posted to sectional kennels behind the front line. Keepers were often men who had worked as gamekeepers, shepherds or hunt servants, though Richardson pointed out that the most important qualities were, 'to be of an honest, conscientious character, with sympathetic understanding for animals...using his own initiative to a great extent in handling his dogs...men of intelligence and faithfulness to duty are absolutely essential.'
Each sectional kennel was in the charge of a sergeant and comprised of roughly forty-eight dogs and sixteen men. When the dogs' services were required, men were detailed from the infantry battalions to take them up the front line while the keeper would remain at brigade headquarters, watching for the dog's return and ready to relay any messages. It ensured a highly trained and specialised service able to respond quickly to the requirements of a battalion at any given time.
The British War Dog School at Shoeburyness continued to train and send out dogs not only to France and Belgium but also for use as guards and sentries on the home front, as well as in Salonika. Dogs for the Richardsons' school came from Battersea Dogs' Home (then known as the Home for Lost Dogs at Battersea) and, as demand increased, from other dogs' homes in Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol. Police around the country were instructed to send any strays, of all breeds, to the school, and when even this was not sufficient, the War Office appealed to the public via notices in the Press to donate their own pets, with the promise that, at a time when food shortages were beginning to be felt, the dog would be well fed and cared for in the Army.
The response was excellent and many family pets were soon doing their bit for King and Country, though many of the letters accompanying the donated dogs were heart-rending. One little girl wrote, 'We have let Daddy go to fight the Kaiser, and now we are sending Jack to do his bit,' or a lady whose letter read, 'I have given my husband and my sons, and now that he too is required, I give my dog.' Certain breeds were considered better suited to the task, particularly sheep dogs, collies, lurchers, Irish terriers, Welsh terriers, deerhounds and of course, Airdales. Fox terriers were considered too fond of play, retrievers were too compliant and unlikely to show an independence of thought while any dog with a, 'gaily carried tail, which curled over its back or sideways,' was rarely of any value according to Richardson!
The British War Dog School followed a training regime that encouraged kindness, gentleness and reward. If a dog made a mistake, it was not chastised or punished but simply shown how to do it over and over again. It also acclimatised the dogs to battlefront conditions by taking them through mock trenches at the school, or by making them run towards rifle fire (right). Any men under instruction, 'showing roughness or lack of sympathy with the dogs' would be instantly dismissed. It was a winning formula, the success of which was reflected in the impression made by dogs at the front. Reports from their keepers record some astounding performances. Keeper Davis talked of his dogs, Joe and Lizzard who could cover three miles at night in twenty minutes, 'and they are just the same on any front that we go to.' Keeper Brooks, reporting on one of his dogs, Tom, spoke of how the dog was gassed and hit by shrapnel but was quite well again after a fortnight's rest. Keeper Swankie's dog, Ginger, suffered from shell-shock but eventually recovered and was back on duty, able to cover a mile in just three and a half minutes. Richardson's book is filled with similar glowing testimonials and although there were casualities, considering the fact that the dogs were active during the fiercest bombardments, their nimbleness, speed and size often meant that injuries were avoided.
Perhaps the ultimate accolade for the dog's role in the British Army came from Field-Marshal Haig who acknowledged their essential role in his final dispatch of the war. For Lt-Col. Richardson, he had no doubt that Army dogs carried out their duties willingly: 'the trained dog considers himself highly honoured by his position as a servant of His Majesty, and renders no reluctant service. From my observation along this line I have, in fact, come to the conclusion that a dog trained to some definite work, is happier than the average loafing dog, no matter how kindly the latter may be treated. I certainly found it to be the case with the army dogs.'
Further reading: British War Dogs by Lt-Col. E. H. Richardson