By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Rohse: Beasts of battle: A brutal history

From time immemorial, humans have used animals not just as beasts of burden, but as weapons of war in many different ways, some of which are indeed inhumane — as, indeed, is not all war?

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Perhaps one of the best known examples of the use of animals in war was when Hannibal crossed the Alps with an army of elephants in the Second Punic War. Mankind learned those massive creatures could be of considerable service.

In the battle of Zama, an army of elephants was rendered ineffective when Romans simply moved out of the way, allowing the elephants to pass through their ranks to be dealt with by the light infantry in the rear.

The immensity of the elephant, in and of itself, was effective on the battlefield for a considerable time. Their size, not familiar to most soldiers, was terrifying and often sufficient to intimidate the enemy, stampeding through troop formations and breaking their ranks. In medieval China (AD 948), elephants played a key role in the invasion of Chu.

But when gunpowder and cannons were developed, they largely spelled the end of the use of the elephant as a weapon of war, but the animals remained useful in other ways, such as transporting personnel and equipment and even moving bridges.

The rhinoceros was also said to be used on the battlefield, although some debate exists as to whether it actually did so. A 1515 woodcut by a German painter and printmaker provides some visual evidence that there were probably some rhinos. Portuguese soldiers were said to use them against elephants. In Northeast India, the Assamese people reportedly used rhinos as early tanks. The animals are credited with being cunning, fast and impetuous. Their sturdy horns and protective covering of thick skin make them almost invulnerable even to the elephants.

Man’s best friend — the dog — has taken to the battlefield in great numbers to protect his master. For centuries, they have been used in warfare by Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Slavs, Alans and others.

Molossian dogs were sometimes equipped by their Roman owners with protective spiked metal collars and armor, and dispatched to attack formations. The huge dog was an ancestor of many well-known large breeds, such as the Mastiff and St. Bernard.

Mastiffs went to battle in the Norman invasion. The Irish used Irish wolfhounds against horse-mounted Norman knights.

At one time “war dog” breeding stock was a fashionable gift for European royalty.

According to some accounts, the Spanish Conquistadors trained dogs to kill. Frederick the Great used canines as messengers.

During the Siege of Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Cabeza (1936-37), turkeys were affixed with medical and other supplies and dropped like edible parachutes on defenders.

Pigs were used as war animals and subjected to unbelievable inhumanity. An elephant was mortally afraid of a pig’s squeal. In 275 BC, pigs were used in the war by a Roman king in the battles of Pyrrhus against an army using elephants. In this cruel war act, pigs were doused with flammable resin or tar, were then alighted and driven toward the elephants. The squeals of the pigs did the trick.

Many animals have been used in warfare as mascots and companions: ponies, goats, antelopes and dogs.

In ancient times, cats were an important part of the crew. They controlled rodents, and rodents could do much harm. Rats could destroy woodwork, eat ropes and, more recently, damage electronics.

Although rats are generally regarded with disfavor, in London in 2009, a news item noted that some 2,000 rats were to be used to sniff out land mines in London.

In 2015, a news story headlined the possibility of a squirrel spy ring. Another news item from Israel concerned the possibility of spying by migratory birds in 2012.

Mankind has also looked to reindeer, cows, donkeys, pigeons, camels and mice for assistance.

And to that can be added spiders. Spiders were drafted into the military both by the United States and England during WWII to spin silk threads, which were used in bomb-sights and other technical equipment.

The Army Signal Corps had more than 3,000 soldiers and 150 officers assigned to the U.S. Military Pigeon Service; 54,000 military pigeons were on duty in every combat theater, and served in intelligence services and on submarines, bombers and with ground troops.

Sixteen million animals served in World War I.

Casualties between 1914 and 1918 in British service were an estimated 484,143 horses, mules, camels, etc. It is estimated a million dogs died during WWI.

Military working dogs helped locate wounded soldiers. The soldier would give the dog an identifying feature of his clothing to take back to headquarters and summon rescuers.

It seems a significant oversight that war animals are often left without recognition when considering those whose lives ended for their country, or master.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at



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