The Mercy Dogs of World War 1

Mar 26, 2021 0 comments

Dogs have accompanied men to war since ancient times, as scouts, sentries, trackers and messengers. But the most unique role they ever played was that of the “mercy dog” in World War 1, seeking out wounded soldiers in no man’s land where medics can’t reach them, comforting the mortally wounded and offering companionship and respite to those dying for their country.

Mercy Dogs

French medical dog tracks down a wounded man. Postcard, 1914. Photo: Frankfurter Allgemeine

Mercy dogs, also called medical dogs or casualty dogs, were first trained by the German army in the late 19th century for the purpose of assisting the combat medic seek out injured soldiers in the battlefield. Jean Bungartz, a German animal painter and author of numerous animal books, was horrified by the staggering number of missing soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and started training dogs to help track down wounded soldiers. To this end, he founded the German Association for Medical Dogs in 1890, which took over responsibility for training medical dogs on a voluntary basis.

During World War 1, mercy dogs were trained by national Red Cross societies to serve the country in which the specific society operated. A typical mercy dog was equipped with a saddlebag containing water, alcohol, and first aid supplies, which a wounded soldier could use to tend to his wounds. The dogs were trained to move silently around no man’s land, usually at night, sniffing out wounded soldiers, ignoring those belonging to the other side. The dogs were smart enough to recognize and differentiate between slightly wounded men and soldiers who were beyond help. Their mission was to alert the troops back at the camp that a man who had a chance of survival was lying in the battlefield waiting for help.

Mercy Dogs

Alexander Pope’s painting of a Red cross dog carrying a soldier's helmet. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As soon as a mercy dog found a soldier, he would allow the wounded soldier to use the medical supplies he was carrying. If his condition was too severe that this was impossible, the dog would return to the trenches with a piece of the soldier's uniform and lead a paramedic to the soldier. Sometimes a mercy dog would drag soldiers to safety. Many mercy dogs stayed by a dying soldier remaining as a last comforting comrade.

A military surgeon once praised the dog's abilities to triage wounded soldiers:

They sometimes lead us to the bodies we think have no life in them, but when we bring them back to the doctors ... they always find a spark. It is purely a matter of their instinct, [which] is far more effective than man's reasoning powers

Mercy Dogs

A German Red Cross dog seeking the wounded. Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

As many as 10,000 dogs served as mercy dogs during the war on both sides, employed especially by the Germans and the French. They are credited with saving thousands of lives, including at least 2,000 in France and 4,000 German soldiers. Several such dogs drew specific attention for their work, including Captain for finding 30 soldiers in one day, and Prusco for finding 100 men in just one battle. Prusco was known to drag soldiers into ditches as a safe harbor while he went to summon rescuers.

The trenches of World War 1 was a horrible place for men and dogs, both. Guns blew away the earth, and the rain turned it into slush. Chocking mustard gas filled the air. Many mercy dogs lost their lives to the bullet. Those who survived suffered traumatic stress as a result of their service.

Mercy dogs were used in limited capability during World War 2 and also during the Korean War to find wounded soldiers. Modern wars are no longer fought in trenches, and the skill of dogs that could navigate the scorched battlefield looking for injured soldiers were no longer needed. But dogs continue to play an active part in wars, and will continue to do so as long as human and dogs remain companions.

# Jill Lenk Schilp, Dogs in Health Care: Pioneering Animal-Human Partnerships
# Wikipedia


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