The recent commemoration of the centenary of the First World War has focused many people’s thoughts on the service men and women who fought, died and survived the conflict. But millions of animals and birds also died alongside the troops.
The memorial to ‘Animals in War’ in Park Lane was unveiled on 24 November 2004. An inscription reads, ‘They had no choice.’ However, Kilburn is home to a much earlier memorial to the nation’s service animals.
|The Kilburn Clinic at 10 Cambridge Avenue (Dick Weindling)|
Horses, dogs and donkeys were the most commonly used animals – mainly for transport and haulage, but camels, elephants, pigeons, bullocks, dogs and goats were all pressed into service. They suffered from exposure, lack of food and disease, dying alongside their human companions.
The Park Lane memorial was the fulfilment of an idea that dates as far back as the early 1920s when the RSPCA proposed a memorial for animals that had served in WWI. A committee was set up, funds were raised and the site chosen was Hyde Park corner. In 1925 photographs of the proposed memorial were submitted to Westminster City Council but there the project appears to have stalled.
Instead the RSPCA decided on a more practical commemoration, in the form of the Animal War Memorial Dispensary, where, ‘the sick, injured or unwanted animals of poor people could receive, free of charge, the best possible veterinary attention, or a painless death.’
It took many years to find a suitable site. The RSPCA acquired 10 Cambridge Avenue Kilburn, in March 1931 and that May, the freeholders allowed a change of use from a private house to a ‘free dispensary for sick and injured animals.’
The memorial inscription on the Kilburn building is echoed by that in Hyde Park:
‘To all animals who suffered and perished in the Great War knowing nothing of the cause, looking forward to no final victory, filled only with love, faith and loyalty, they endured much and died for us.’
Thirty-one sculptors entered the competition for a memorial design for the main facade of the building. Frederick Brook Hitch of Hertford was the winner and his wonderful bronze plaque is above the main door.
A local paper recorded the official opening on 10 November 1932, by the Countess of Warwick. But the dispensary had been at work for over a year, during which time 6,000 animals had been treated. The ceremony was preceded by a meeting at St Augustine’s School in Kilburn Park Road, presided over by the Chairman of the RSPCA, Sir Robert Gower.
By the mid-1930s, more than 50,000 animals and birds had received attention at the Kilburn Dispensary.
At the rear of the well-equipped premises were glass fronted kennels and catteries with a loose box for horses. There was accommodation on site for a vet and an assistant, providing 24-hour care. In 1936 alone, 9,756 animals passed through the doors.
Unfortunately, the clinic in Cambridge Avenue was closed in 2016 as part of the RSPCA reorganisation of its London veterinarian services.
The main door is flanked by two marble memorial panels. They record that 484,143 animals were killed by enemy action, disease or accident and that 725,216 animals were treated by the RSPCA during WWI. We now know the overall mortality figures were far higher, with an estimated 8 million horses dying in WWI.
The horse is the animal most often associated with the European conflict. In 1914, the British and German armies had a cavalry force of some 100,000 men.
The development of trench warfare made cavalry charges redundant, but horses and mules were still needed to transport materials and supplies and to pull guns and ambulances.
Dogs accompanied sentries on patrol, carried messages and worked as scouts, ‘sniffing’ out the enemy ahead. Others acted as medics, sent onto the battlefield equipped with basic supplies that allowed a wounded man to tend to his own injuries. They might also stay with a fatally injured soldier until he died.
Pigeons were very reliable when it came to sending messages. It has been calculated that they had an astonishing 95% success rate getting through to their destination. The Government even issued a special ‘Defence of the Realm Regulation’ to prohibit the shooting of homing pigeons. Offenders were warned they faced six months imprisonment or a £100 fine.
A pigeon named ‘Cher Ami’ was awarded the Croix de Guerre for work in the American sector around Verdun in 1918. On her last mission, Cher Ami was shot but delivered a message that gave the co-ordinates of 194 soldiers cut off behind enemy lines. The men were rescued. Cher Ami recovered and was sent back to the USA where she died in 1919. Her body was put on display at the Smithsonian museum, Washington D.C.
There is newsreel footage of animals in service during WWI; but be warned many of them make for unpleasant viewing.