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Animals of the Great War, Part 6: Sergeant Stubby

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.

Private J. Robert Conroy was in trouble. His U.S. National Guard division had just arrived in France on the SS Minnesota. But Conroy had brought an unauthorised passenger on board: a brindle Boston Terrier puppy with an unusually short tail. Stubby, as the soldiers had named him, had become an unofficial mascot for the division while they were training in Connecticut, and Conroy couldn’t bear to part with him.

Now the commanding officer had discovered the stowaway. Pets were strictly forbidden, and things weren’t looking good for Stubby - or for Private Conroy.

Then the little stray sat up and brought his right paw to his eyebrow in a salute. The commanding officer smiled in spite of himself. Stubby could stay.

In February 1918, Stubby - now the division’s official mascot - accompanied his soldiers to the front lines. Although the sound of guns and bombs frightened him at first, he eventually became used to them. But there was another weapon he could not hear: poison gas.

While there were relatively few deaths from gas during the war, it caused extremely painful and debilitating lung conditions. When his unit experienced its first attack, Stubby suffered from these effects just like his human comrades. Just like them, he was treated at a Red Cross hospital, and returned to the front after recovering.

Stubby had learned from his experience. From then onwards, he would start barking frantically at the slightest smell of gas. Since his nose was far more sensitive than a human’s, this meant he was able to warn the soldiers, allowing them to put on their masks before the gas reached them.

This was not Stubby’s only skill. He could hear the high-pitched whine of shells before the soldiers could, and thus warn them to take cover. He could also distinguish between the English and German languages, which allowed him to find wounded American soldiers. He made a point of looking for them and alerting paramedics. He also often stayed with dying soldiers as if to comfort them. In April 1918 he was wounded by a grenade and spent another spell in hospital, where he cheered up his fellow patients.

Stubby’s greatest triumph came when he caught a German spy sneaking into camp. He held the man by his leg until his human friends came.

After Stubby’s unit helped liberate the French town of Château-Thierry, the women of the town made him a jacket, to which the soldiers pinned his medals. There were many of them, for Stubby became the most decorated dog of the war. Thanks to his combat experience, he was also promoted to sergeant -- meaning that he outranked his owner!

Stubby was greeted as a hero when he returned to the U.S. after the war, even meeting President Woodrow Wilson. For the rest of his life he remained a celebrity, and when he died, his preserved body was given to the Smithsonian.

Stubby was just one of thousands of dogs that assisted both sides during the war. Their service included standing guard, sniffing out the enemy, finding the wounded, and carrying messages. Battersea Dogs Home donated many stray dogs to the war effort, and some people even volunteered their pet dogs to be sent to the front.

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