Ever wondered where all the inspiration for the Weaponized Animal or Beast of Battle came from? Like everything else, it came from Real Life. Animals have been used in war for the entirety of human history, for mundane jobs like field work, cargo hauling, and pest control, to more specialized roles such as communications, not to mention the prospect of them being mounts or an Attack Animal. The United Kingdom even has a special commemoration for particularly brave or exceptional military animals, known as the Dickin Medal.
Horses have enjoyed a long and illustrious history alongside humans in war. In the entire history of the world, horses have been utilized in militaries much more than any other animal. From a tactical standpoint, horses are extremely mobile and require relatively little rest. They can trek long distances hauling cargo or carrying riders, and their speed allows armies to outmaneuver or outrun foes. From a battle standpoint, a pissed horse is chaos on a battlefield, and horses were trained to kick, bite, and stomp either on command or reflexively. A single rider armed with a long-reaching weapon such as a lance or bow could run circles around unmounted enemies and kill them one by one.
- Horses have a number of uses on the battlefield, some familiar, some less well known. The word Cavalry comes ultimately from the latin word for horse, caballus, and is related to words like chivalry. Soldiers that ride horses but fight on foot are commonly called mounted infantry, but might officially be a cavalry unit, and some "cavalry" units today are descended from horse riding units but instead fill other roles, usually using vehicles of some sort. And of course there are pack horses which are a tool used by several types of unit. Chariots when they were used had many of the same uses, advantages, and disadvantages as cavalry.
- Horses give a person height and fast movement. In return, they require specialized skills, and while smaller horses can eat grass, larger horses need a lot of additional food. In many historical farming societies, only the richest served as horse soldiers: only they could afford the land, food, and labor to keep horses plus the time to learn to use them. Some historical societies were based entirely around horses, such as Plains Indians, Mongols, or Turks. These societies gained skills as part of everyday life, and used horses that could be maintained on grazing alone.
- To commanders, a horses speed makes them valuable for messengers. Commanders can themselves move around a battlefield quicker, as well as see farther from the extra height, plus the height from a horse helps make them look impressive with appropriate morale benefits.
- Speed and height make Cavalry useful as scouts, to cover more territory and see more.
- Before modern transportation, the main way for armies in hostile territory to supply themselves was stealing food. Cavalry's speed let them cover more area, allowing more food to be taken, in addition to general raiding and plundering. Alternatively, since this stealing involved breaking up an army somewhat, fast moving cavalry could interfere more easily with an enemy army doing this. Which could cause losses or even force a retreat due to limited supplies.
- Horse based cultures such as Mongols had a different way of feeding and supplying themselves, which horses were a part of. Plus the speed meant they could cover more ground even with similar food available. And of course horses help with raiding.
- Horses are used a pack animals and transportation. Even in modern times with modern weapons, horses may have an easier time in some territory than some vehicles, mounted infantry isn't common but still exists.
- Against a disorganized enemy, fast moving horses can easily ride people down. Chasing and killing a retreating army was one of the main roles of cavalry throughout history. Archers, Light infantry, or artillery also make good targets such such attacks, as they are often spread out, or in a dense fighting formation that can fend off a horse.
- In battle, some horsemen could use ranged weapons to harass enemies while being hard to hit back. Horse and chariot archers famously filled this role, but javelins were also used.
- Some horsemen could charge an enemy. A disciplined group of footsoldiers can fend off such a charge, but charging horses are big, make a lot of noise, move fast, and therefore are rather scary so such discipline is not guaranteed. If they do make contact, the speed of the horse adds power to a strike, medieval European lances were specially built to take advantage of this, designed to transfer a lot of force from the knight to the spear. Against ranged weapons, a charging horse will close the distance faster than a person on foot could.
- In the Bronze Age, in places such as Ancient Egypt and Greece, horse drawn chariots carrying one or two soldiers were extremely powerful on the primitive battlefield. A single rider could use the chariot to rapidly move through the battle, mounting onto the chariot, moving where he was needed, and dismounting to engage the enemy. Alternatively, a chariot could carry two, one to drive the chariot, and a passenger that was either being transported, or was armed with a bow to take enemy soldiers out from a distance. Chariots, ultimately, fell off pretty quickly due to their high-cost and extreme difficulty to repair if damaged. Riding the horse itself was ultimately deemed more effective.
- In Asia, horses, next to the invention of the recurve bow, are often cited as the main reason that Genghis Khan and his Mongols conquered as much land as he did. Mongolian archers were trained to fire their arrows when all four of the horse's feet were off the ground, thus granting them greater accuracy. Soldiers had very close bonds with their horses and held them in the utmost respect. In particularly desperate times, such as during food shortages or when a soldier was separated from his army, Mongolians would cut into a minor vein in the horses neck and drink the blood when water was not available. Traditionally, the saying goes that a Mongolian without a horse is like a bird without wings.
- During medieval times, warhorses were at perhaps their most prevalent in European history. The entire concept of Chivalry (Which comes from the French word chevalerie, which literally means 'horse soldiery.') is predicated on the sheer power a horse granted him, and is an attempt to prevent Knights from abusing that powernote . Horses were perhaps trained at their strongest and largest, and were often decked in elaborate armored barding to protect them. Trained to thrive in the shock and noise of close combat, horses remained the primary avenue through which Europeans waged their wars.
- Although the advent of firearms made cavalry less effective, horses were still used as war mounts well into the American Civil War. Although it has been claimed that bows remained more effective on horseback, riders wielding muskets and pistols alongside sabers were very common, particularly for commanding officers. Cavalry charges remained relatively common since horses could close distance faster than an enemy force could reload. These horses were trained to grow used to the cracking sound of gunfire.
- The last place horses saw extensive military use was World War II. A few cavalry charges were attempted, but most did not end well with the advent of automatic weapons and explosives. Horses can be trained to ignore the clang of swords and bang of guns, but most lose their nerve when faced with a large explosion that shakes the ground. Despite falling out of favor as battle mounts, horses still saw use hauling goods and supplies, or for short-range transportation, particularly in places where horseback riding policemen were already common.
- In the modern day, horses still see extensive use by armies without much financial backing, and by many militaries who need fast transportation over difficult terrain. Modern vehicles can have difficulty getting through wooded or rocky areas, and while new technologies are being developed in those fields and horses are well past their heyday, they still see some tours of duty.
Five horses have been recognized by the United Kingdom for their service, and were granted the Dickin Medal.
- Olga, a bay mare, was initially spooked by an explosion during an air bombing in Tooting. Her rider, J. E. Thwaites, successfully calmed her, and the pair went on to escort civilians to safety.
- Regal, a bey gelding, bravely survived an incendiary bombing near his stable and was led out without injury, despite fires spreading next to his stall. Three years later, a different bomb wrecked the same stable and injured Regal, but he still survived.
- Upstart, a chestnut gelding, was patrolling a street in Bethnal Green with his rider, DI J. Morley. A bomb went off 75 feet in front of him, showering the pair in shrapnel and broken glass. The horse remained unfazed through the ordeal, and the pair went on to lead survivors to safety.
- Warrior, the warhorse of General Jack Seely in World War I, was posthumously granted the Dickin Medal. The horse served four years, from 1914 to 1918, on the Western Front.
- Sergeant Reckless was an ammunition carrier horse serving the US Marines during the Korean War. She was honored the Dickin Medal after being twice wounded in battle, and notably, during the Battle for Outpost Vegas, successfully made 53 transports in a single day hauling ammunition to the battlefield and hauling wounded soldiers to safety on her way back.
It's only natural that man's best friend follow into conflict. Being the first animal ever domesticated by humans, dogs have undoubtedly been involved in far more battles and conquests than we have recorded history for. Throughout history, dogs have primarily been used for their superpowered tracking abilities and ability to sense danger, whether it's enemy warriors sneaking into your encampment or sniffing out explosives buried in the sand, or chasing fleeing enemies in the field. In battle, dogs are obviously terrifying combatants and many soldiers feel a primal fear at the sound of barking and snarling. Dogs have been weaponized by, more or less, every culture that had access to them. A less appreciated aspect, however, is the morale boost a dog brings. War Is Hell after all, and canine friendship has often been cited as one of the primary reasons some soldiers can stay in good spirits during war.
- During the previous Ice Age, the first proto-dogs were likely used to assist hunting more dangerous and evasive game humans could not do on their own as well as keeping rival tribes and predators out of their village. Since both humans and dogs were social predators, it was highly likely that both species also ate their prey together, thus strengthening humanity and canine's Interspecies Friendship to the point where it's almost unbreakable today.
- In ancient times, Greeks trained dogs to fight enemy soldiers. The details on this are unclear, but it is the earliest record of dogs being used in war. There are visual depictions of Cimmerian war dogs clashing with Greek hoplites.
- In Rome, Emperor Marcus Aurelius began the tradition of training dogs for war. The now extinct Molossus breed was primarily used, and were armed with spiked collars and dressed in chainmail for protection. Supposedly, they could even be arranged to attack in formation.
- Emperor Lê Lợi of the Vietnam Empire raised a pack of 100 war hounds.
- In Medieval Europe, Mastiffs and Great Danes were trained to use their massive size and strength to disable enemy knights. Either their barking would spook enemy warhorses, or, more dramatically, they could pounce on riders and knock them off their horses. Wardog breeding stock was often seen as a valuable trading commodity between nobility.
- Spanish conquistadors bred Alanos Españoles, a breed that still exists today, to assist in conquering Mexico, Peru, and the Caribbean. Those dogs, a mix of dogo and mastiff, sometimes wore spiked armor, and were reportedly physically capable to kill jaguars, cougars and even alligators, and intelligent enough to distinguish between indigenous allies and enemies.
- During World War I, dogs were primarily used for communication, running messages between different internal parties. Approximately a million dogs were slain in action. One of note, Sergeant Stubby, has been called the most decorated dog of World War I and is the first and only canine to be nominated for rank and ascend that rank through combat. One story claims that Sergeant Stubby even successfully apprehended a German spy.
- In less than heroic fashion, the Soviet Union deployed dogs strapped with explosives to destroy enemy tanks. It did not work.
- During World War II, 549 dogs served the United States Marine Corps in the Pacific theater, called "the war dogs of the Pacific." Most of these dogs were donated by civilian owners.
- Approximately 5,000 dogs served the US during the Vietnam War, where they and their handlers are said to have saved over 10,000 human lives.
- Dogs still see extensive military use today, more extensive than any other animal. In addition to the morale bonus they grant troops, they are trained to defend their handlers, but are most often used in non-combat roles, sniffing out explosives, sighting tripwires and snipers, and protecting outposts.
Many, many dogs have been granted military awards. In addition to the Dickin Medal, many US dogs have been given Purple Hearts or Silver Stars, however these weren't officially issued and were instead given to the dogs by their handlers with donated medals. See more below.
- Becerrillo, a Spanish dog owned by Juan Ponce de León, did so well on the battlefields of the conquest of America (according to a source, he killed 33 enemies in a single battle) that he was awarded a soldier's wage. He was eventually killed in action by natives while protecting the house of a conquistador mulatto who was married to the queen of a rival tribe, as quirky as it sounds.
- 18 dogs were granted the Dickin Medal between 1943 and 1949 for service during World War II.
- Chips was a German Shepherd-Collie mix who is reportedly the most decorated US military dog of World War II. He first served as a sentry, but was later dispatched with the 3rd Infantry Division where he saw Italy, France, North Africa, Sicily, and Germany. During the Sicily invasion, Chips and his handler were pinned down by a machine-gun nest. Chips broke away from his handler and charged the nest. Despite taking a wound on his scalp and powder burns, he managed to run out all four soldiers manning the nest, and those soldiers surrendered to US troops. Later that same day, he helped capture Italian soldiers. He was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart, and Silver Star even though the War Department had regulations banning the awarding of medals to animals; this ban was waived by General Truscott who personally pinned the Distinguished Service Cross to Chips' collar. However, a Purple Heart nationalist complained to the President that awarding a dog a Purple Heart was an insult to the human soldiers who earned it, and Congress later had Chips' awards revoked. While the awards were reinstated after large public outcry, the Army persisted that from that point on, no awards could be granted to war animals. Chips was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal in 2018.
- In 2011, a Belgian Malinois named Cairo serving under the US Navy Seals participated in Operation Neptune Spear, the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. He served with his handler outside, charged to track escapees and deter any ground response.
- During the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, a bomb/mine-sniffing Jack Russell Terrier named Patron (Патрон, "cartridge" in Ukrainian), the mascot of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, became a national hero, primarily operating in Chernihiv. On May 8, 2022, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy honored Patron and his handler Mykhailo Iliev with a third degree Medal of Courage. Since July 2022, he has his own animated webseries.
You aren't dreaming. Pigeons are likely the most utilized military animal of the contemporary age. The utility of the homing pigeon has been known for centuries, but pigeons had a massive boom in use during the two World Wars. Their homing instinct allows them to return to their nests over extremely long distances; the vector of this is unknown, but is believed to be a form of magnetoreception. They also fly swiftly, and fly at high altitudes, making them very effective for communication. During wartime, marksmen would be given good marks for shooting an enemy carrier pigeon from the sky, while shooting an allied one would be considered an action worth a criminal fine. Message delivery was the primary usage for homing pigeons, but, as seen above, other experiments were attempted, including strapping cameras to pigeons, or using them as bomb-guidance systems. Pigeons saw open official use until 1966, although there are some reports that a few modern military groups use them today.
- The usage of pigeons to communicate dates back to the 6th century. Both Cyrus, King of Persia, and Julius Caesar are documented to have used pigeons to send and receive messages.
- During the Franco-Prussion War, Parisians used pigeons to send messages out from the city. In response, the Prussian Army used hawks to try and combat them.
- During World War I, the use of pigeons exploded. The US Army used 600 pigeons in France alone. They were so important for naval communication, that the USS Langley, the first US Aircraft Carrier, was built with a pigeon house. When released from the coast, the pigeons were actually able to find their way back to the ship, although releasing multiple introduced problems when they roosted in a small group on the coast, making a new nest instead of flying back home.
- During World War II, the UK employed 250,000 pigeons. Out of respect, the Dickin Medal, introduced following World War II, has been granted to 32 pigeons; pigeons have earned more medals than any other military animal combined.
- In 2010, Indian police were concerned that a recently captured pigeon from Pakistan might have been used for communication. In 2016, a Jordanian border official stated that Islamic militant groups had been using homing pigeons for message delivery. Neither of these claims have hard evidence (No one's captured/killed a pigeon with a message nor has a pigeon message been discovered), but they are not outside the realm of possibility.
While a lot of pigeons have received medals for their service, a few stand out.
- Cher Ami was a Blue Chek hen serving the United States Signal Corp in France during World War I. On October 3rd, 1918, over 550 men were pinned down in a on the side of a hill without food or ammunition. In addition to enemy troops, they were receiving friendly fire from allies who didn't know who they were. After 2 pigeons from this group were already shot down, Cher Ami was dispatched with a message reading, "We are along the road paralell[sic] to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heavens sake stop it." Cher Ami was fired upon by German soldiers. She was shot down, but despite injury, she took flight again and made it home. The bullet had flown through her breast, her left eye had been blinded, and her leg was hanging by a tendon, but her message saved over 194 lives. The Army medics worked tirelessly to save her life, and she was given a new wooden leg and was returned home. She was awarded the Croix de guerre, a French medal made for those who performed valorous actions in World War I. She died a year after the war ended, and her body was stuffed and is currently at the Smithsonian Institution alongside Sergeant Stubby.
- G.I. Joe (Not that one) was a US pigeon who served through both World Wars. At the village of Calvi Vecchia in Italy, British soldiers had successfully taken the village from enemy German soldiers. They did this ahead of the predicted schedule, and an American air raid had been planned to bomb the village. The soldiers tried to reach the Americans, but were unable to send a radio message. G.I. Joe was sent as a last resort. He flew 20 miles in 20 minutes, an extremely fast speed, and arrived in his home box just in time to have the air raid cancelled (Pilots were literally preparing to take off). Over 1000 lives were saved, and after the war. G.I. Joe was awarded the Dickin Medal, and he is credited with "the most outstanding flight made by a United States Army homing pigeon in World War II." G.I. Joe died of old age at 18, and his body was stuffed and currently sits on display at the U.S. Army Communications Electronics Museum at Fort Monmouth.
Besides horses, many animals have been used to bear payloads or passengers. Such animals were often stocky, strong, and less-than mild mannered. Horses are renowned for their steady tempers and calmness. Other animals, not so much, which is why they either saw less extensive use, or were rapidly abandoned when it was obvious they could be a danger to their handlers.
War Elephants — massive, hulking beasts all grey skin and ivory. The largest land animal has actually had a pretty extensive history serving in wars. The reason why should be obvious — they're large, strong, intelligent, and intimidating; their exotic appearance was an absolute horror to cultures who had never seen them before. They were often used to carry commanders, who could survey the battlefield from the high vantage point on the elephant's back, or held mounted archers, who could use the same vantage point to accurately shoot. Otherwise, a charging elephant will kill just about anybody. Training these beasts, however, was no easy task, and while their intelligence actually makes them highly trainable, it often involved methods involving animal cruelty. The disadvantages are great, as well; elephants are easily spooked, and a terrified elephant is more of a danger to it's own army than it's enemy, since it'll turn around and trample it's own backup. Their intelligence can also be a problem, as they recognize danger much more readily than horses. The practice of training war elephants is called Elephantry, and the elephants used are vastly Asian Elephants, as opposed to African Elephant, which is more well-known in the modern world.
- Prior to being used for war, elephants were being tamed for agricultural uses, which made the transition easier. However, elephants never made the leap from wild to domesticated, and all elephants used for these tasks were captured in the wild.
- Sanskrit songs dating back to 1,100 BC depict elephants being tamed and trained for war.
- Hannibal Barca famously deployed war elephants to great effect in multiple battles. Particularly, the Carthaginian commander was able to cross the Alps while riding his elephant.
- In India, tusk-swords were weapons designed to be mounted on elephants. Their tusks would be cut off to a point, and replaced with a long, metal blade.
- Surprisingly to most people, elephants have been used in war as recently as World War II, although mostly for labor and logistics in places that armored vehicles could not reach. They would perform tasks such as pulling aircraft on airfields and hauling other heavy equipment. This practice has, of course, been largely discontinued, although elephants are still tamed today for ceremonial purposes.
While the horse and elephant were the most well known and notable mounts of war, others have been recorded.
- Camels are important animals to people living in deserts and other places with no water. Camels served in both World Wars, and Camel Cavalry are still fielded today by the Indian Army to patrol the deserts at their border.
- Mules have often been used to haul cargo. Extremely hardy, they were fielded by the US, British, and Indian Armies during World War II, in places where they could easily and stoically haul cargo that jeeps and pack horses could not.
- Oxen have been used in a similar manner to mules, but less often due to their temperament.
- In a humorous attempt, both Sweden and the Soviet Union have attempted to train moose for use in war. While moose cavalry was actually shown to be very effective in regions with deep snow and could be trained to ignore gunfire, they faltered due to non-combat reasons, being very susceptible to livestock disease and difficult to keep fed.
While dogs have always been the primary method of using an animal as an actual weapon, they are not the only animals that have been trained for such purposes. Many have been trained to thrive in the shock of combat, while in more modern times, tragically, before animal cruelty and other awareness campaigns, animals were often used as living bombs. Thankfully, those cases were either quickly shut-down experiments, or otherwise were proven ineffective.
Cats actually have a larger military history than once thought. Big cats were trained primarily in ancient times, while in the modern day cats are used by navies for pest control, hunting rats that stow away on board. Some of these cats are remembered specifically, and others are known by general knowledge.
- Ancient Egyptians were known to tame Cheetahs for hunting and war purposes. They were often handled, in appropriate fashion, by archers or chariot riders.
- Ramses II, third Pharaoh of Egypt, had a pet war lion. Yeah, seriously. It fought with him at the Battle of Kadesh. It's name can be translated as "slayer of his foes" or "he who repels the enemy." The lion is even credited as being one of the few in Ramses' army who did not flee in fear when Hittites ambushed their camp. Ramses later had the fleeing generals decapitated, and probably fed to his kitty. Besides this, Egyptians often kept caged lions who were starved and released in the direction of enemy forces.
- The CIA attempted to surgically modify cats to be effective spies on Soviet and Kremlin embassies. After 10 million dollars spent, the experiment was scrapped.
- Simon is the only cat to have received the Dickins Medal. Simon served aboard the HMS Amethyst, and was granted the medal for not only raising morale, but for surviving a cannon shell and fighting off a rat infestation afterwards.
This section is dedicated to all the attempts to turn animals into self-guiding explosives. While the moral implications here are obvious, it still happened. Besides the dogs listed above:
- Monkeys were actually trained by the Southern Song Dynasty of China. The animals would be wrapped in straw, dipped in oil, set on fire, and tossed into enemy compounds where they spread fire and chaos.
- Similarly, in ancient times, pigs and boars were also set on fire and released into enemy ranks. This actually proved an effective deterrent against war elephants, who would be spooked by the fire and sound of screaming pigs.
- Project Pigeon was a US based operation to use pigeons to guide bombs. While the pigeons themselves weren't strapped with bombs, the plan was to affix them with trackers and deploy them to areas to help in aiming the bombs. The plan was scrapped after $25,000 was put into it, mostly because no one would take it seriously, Thankfully, pigeons were very useful elsewhere during the war.
- A different US project proposed using Mexican free-tailed bats with bombs strapped to them. It did not get off the ground. During testing, the bats were revealed to be an extreme danger to keep when some got loose and started a massive fire at Carlsbad Army Airfield Auxiliary Air Base in New Mexico.
- Infamously, the Red Army began using dogs as an anti-tank bomb delivery system starting in 1941. The dogs were trained to, on command, find a tank, run to it, and hide underneath it, at which point the bomb the dog was wearing would detonate. The project was not very effective, for a number of reasons. The dogs were initially trained on stationary tanks, and in combat would refuse to go under a moving one. They were also trained with a single tank, and when faced with multiple tanks or armored vehicles would become confused, and retreat to their handlers. Attempts were made to acclimatize the dogs to the sounds of battle, but when exposed to the real thing many of them again became afraid and confused. Any dogs that returned to their handlers had to be shot to prevent them blowing up in Soviet lines, which of course made the program even more unpopular with its own personnel than it already was. But perhaps the most ironic failure of the program is that the dogs were trained using Soviet tanks running on diesel fuel, which smelled distinctly different than the target German tanks running on gasoline. Dogs heavily rely on sense of smell, and when released, they would seek out their own side's tanks... Although the program was much diminished after 1942, it didn't actually end and the USSR and Russia continued to train anti-tank dogs until 1996.
The US and Russian militaries have trained several marine mammals for military reconnaissance, from dolphins to sea lions. They have been trained to detect explosives and rescue lost divers.
- In 2019, a beluga whale swam into Norway that appeared to have been trained by the Russian Navy, as it was found wearing a "Equipment of St. Petersburg" harness and seemed to be comfortable around humans. He was named "Hvaldimir" by the locals, a pun on Vladimir Putin and the Norwegian word for "whale".
Works of fiction with focus on military animals:
Film - Animation:
Film - Live Action:
- Dog (2022)
- Dog Jack (2010)
- Finding Rin Tin Tin (2007)
- Max (2015)
- Megan Leavey (2017)
- War Dogs (1942)
- War Horse (1982, plus the 2011 film adaptation)
- Patron the Dog