It’s easy to assume that the invention of the car engine, and by extension the tank, brought an end to the role played by animals in military conflicts. In terms of direct participation the decline of the horseback cavalry charge may mean this is true (although animals such as dogs, pigeons and even slugs have contributed to the military effort in wildly varying ways, as we’ll explore later), but that doesn’t mean that animals and the UK military have gone their separate ways. At the last count, the UK Army had 8 animal mascots, 4 of which have their own rank.
These aren’t simply pets, either, such as the ferrets, bull terriers and bald eagles kept by some regiments. The mascots are members of the Army, chosen for symbolic or historic significance and expected to carry out specific ceremonial roles and duties. Like the soldiers they serve alongside they have a regimental number and are fed and watered from public funds. The following are just a few of the more famous animals currently serving as official UK military mascots:
Name: Shenkin III
Rank: Lance Corporal
Regiment: 3rd Battalion the Royal Welsh
Species: Kashmiri goat
Why a Goat?
Legend has it that during the Crimean War in 1855, Private Gwilym Jenkins put a goat kid inside his coat to stay warm and promptly fell asleep. The goat stayed alert, however, and bleated to warn of the approach of a Russian patrol. Ever since, a goat has been a symbol of good luck for the regiment.
Duties: Leads the Welsh rugby team out at the Millennium Stadium and attends events such as the 50th anniversary of the film Zulu in Leicester Square, during which he was introduced to Prince Harry.
— The Royal Welsh (@TheRoyalWelsh) March 19, 2016
Name: Domhnall of Shantamon
Rank: No rank as yet
Regiment: Irish Guards
Species: Irish Wolfhound
Why a Wolfhound?
The first mascot, named Brian Boru, was given to the Irish Guards in 1902 by the Irish Wolfhound Club of Northern Ireland. Since then, there have been 15 Wolfhounds in the regiment.
Duties: Domhnall takes part in ceremonial events such as the St Patrick’s Day Parade, the Queen’s Birthday Parade and the first part of Trooping the Colour.
A Shetland Pony
Name: Pegasus V
Rank: Lance Corporal
Regiment: The Parachute Regiment
Species: Shetland Pony
Why a Shetland Pony
The 1st Battalion regiment was given a pony in 1950, named Pegasus I in honour of the Pegasus Bridge raid which the regiment took part in at the start of D-Day in 1944. Although other battalions received ponies, it was decided to just keep Pegasus and the first official mascot was named Sergeant Ringway in 1962.
His duties include attending D-Day commemorations in Holland and appearing every month at the passing out parades at Catterick Garrison.
The story of animals in the military may now be one of ceremonial duties and a fairly pampered existence, but the history of World War 1 and 2 is of animals doing their bit to help the military effort. During the First World War, pigeons were used to carry vitally important messages and deliver them securely and dogs carried out the same task down on the ground, as well as sniffing out missing and wounded soldiers and covert enemy attacks.
Horses and mules were employed for the strength they brought to the task of moving heavy equipment, but perhaps the most unusual creature involved in fighting in the trenches was the humble slug. It was discovered that slugs were capable of detecting the deadly chemical weapon mustard gas before the soldiers were able to. Upon getting a sniff, they would compress their bodies and close their breathing pores, thus alerting the soldiers to the need to put on their gas masks.
More recently, dolphins and sea lions have been trained to work for naval forces. Dolphins are able to detect and mark underwater mines without setting them off, while sea lions can swim to great depths to investigate and retrieve suspicious items. Both creatures, additionally, have been used to guard harbours and ships, warning of any unusual activity.
Header photograph © Crown copyright