Animals of the Great War, Part 7: Cats at War
2014 marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I. In addition to humans, the war involved millions of animals - from horses to pigeons to slugs! In this special year, Laura Brown, writes a series of articles remembering animal helpers, heroes and victims of the war. Laura now works for the Bat Conservation Trust.
Cats couldn’t be trained to help humans during war as dogs could, but they were still called into service to do what they would have been doing anyway: catching rodents.
Soldiers in the trenches were actually fighting two battles: one against the enemy, and the other against the notorious trench rats. These creatures thrived in the dirty environment of trenches, stealing food and spreading disease. They ate the bodies of dead soldiers and even attacked the living.
One of the many strategies used in the fight against rats was to introduce cats to the trenches. Sadly, this, like all the other methods, proved ineffective. The rats simply bred too quickly.
But this didn’t mean cats had no use in trench warfare. They served as a source of comfort for the soldiers. Many photographs of army camps show a cat being cuddled by one of the soldiers or sitting contentedly among the crowd -- or, in one case, balancing on a German soldier’s helmet!
These war cats, like their equivalents back home, would have been treated quite differently from pet cats today. Although commercial cat food had been marketed since the late 19th century, it was not yet popular, and many cats were fed scraps of their owners’ food. Veterinary care was also often minimal.
Cats were far more successful at keeping pests down in the navy, where they served in the time-honoured role of ships’ cats. In addition to keeping vermin away from the sailors and their food, they provided companionship and amusement.
One famous ship’s cat was Togo, who lived on board the battleship HMS Irresistible and had the title of “Ordinary Sea Cat.” He was an elderly cat by the time the
war broke out, having been photographed as an adult on board the ship in 1905. Togo had a special bond with Leading Stoker William Charles Burrows, a young sailor from New Zealand. On 18 March 1915, the Irresistible was sunk in the Dardanelles. When a destroyer arrived to rescue the crew, Burrows went down into the sinking ship to save his friend. Sadly, he was unsuccessful, and both he and Togo drowned, along with about 150 other crew members.
Of course, cats don’t always stay where their owners want them, and some ship’s cats would escape on a convenient dock. In 1917, the New York Times reported that the Chelsea Piers in Manhattan had been taken over by these feline refugees. A witness told the Times reporter that the cats went about in gangs of 15 or 20 and stole food from watchmen.
Ships’ cats went on to serve in the Second World War, but were banned from Royal Navy vessels along with all other pets in 1975. Nonetheless, cats provide comfort during wartime even today. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have brought us many stories of soldiers adopting local stray cats, who helped them deal with danger and trauma.