Magazine article The Spectator

'Dogs of Courage: When Britain's Pets Went to War', by Clare Campbell and Christy Campbell - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Dogs of Courage: When Britain's Pets Went to War', by Clare Campbell and Christy Campbell - Review

Article excerpt

Dogs of Courage: When Britain's Pets Went to War Clare Campbell and Christy Campbell

Corsiar, pp.367, £14.99, ISBN: 9781472115669

If you love dogs and or live with one -- I declare an interest on both counts -- there is enough here about what the authors too often call 'doggies' to keep you interested. But what I liked about this book, despite its trickle of cute language, is that the title exactly tells the story. The dogs indeed went to war, and they were trained to do unpleasant things, including committing suicide by charging into German strongholds carrying bombs, seeking out and identifying landmines, finding bodies under rubble, and guarding bases. But according to Clare and Christy Campbell, war dogs' effectiveness, despite much heroic, sometimes false, publicity, is doubtful. Another lie, intended to enrage British dog-lovers, was that in Germany 'three million dogs were compulsorily destroyed.'

Doubts exist right down to whether a dog's famous sense of smell was useful in detecting either landmines or enemy soldiers; experiments by a physiologist on this ability, including severing their scent organs, seemed to show that with or without their smellers intact, dogs were equally good, or not so good, at detection. Mine-hunting dogs, the scientist contended, 'were next to useless...their wartime "success" had been an illusion.' I wish the authors, who have already published the story of Bonzo, a genuine hero dog, had taken a chance and declared whether they thought most war dogs were genuinely useful, if not heroes.

Never mind. There is plenty of fascinating information here. For example, before a wartime role was found for dogs, with food running short in Britain and rationing well established, tens of thousands of them were put down. After much havering and argument inside various war offices, a few dogs, and then gradually many, were given a possible military role. For the most part they were not conscripted. Owners were invited to offer them to the army, instead of to the dog-killers; very slowly this happened, which gives the authors the chance to add a few tear-bringing accounts (I'm not being sarcastic) of children and wives remembering how it felt to give up Rex. …

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