'The Great Dog and Cat Massacre: The Real Story of World War Two's Unknown Tragedy', by Hilda Kean - Review

By Wheldon, Wynn | The Spectator, May 13, 2017 | Go to article overview

'The Great Dog and Cat Massacre: The Real Story of World War Two's Unknown Tragedy', by Hilda Kean - Review


Wheldon, Wynn, The Spectator


War Horse, by way of book and play and film, has brought the role of horses in war into the public consciousness. Even before it, there was the erection of an Animals in War Memorial on Park Lane, paid for by an impressive list of aristocrats under the leadership of commoner Jilly Cooper. But what of pets, or what Professor Hilda Kean prefers to call 'companion animals'?

Not long ago, in Paddington, I was walking my own dog when accosted by an incredibly old man who said that he had lost his dog during the war. 'Oh,' said I, with my eyebrows raised. 'Yes, we lived on the Wirral peninsula, and since we were close to Ireland, which was neutral, there was a fear that the Nazis would invade from there, so the beaches were mined. My dog was blown up by one. About 30 yards from where I was walking.'

That was a tragic accident, whereas The Great Dog and Cat Massacre is a drily academic study, quite free of narrative verve or humour, of the purposeful killing of some half a million dogs and cats (and the occasional rabbit and budgerigar) in the days immediately following the declaration of war on 3 September 1939.

Its author is highly regarded in the field of public history, and this book is keen to display its credentials, rather in the way of academic books about pop music. Ten pages of bibliography follow 38 pages of notes.

Still, there is no doubting Kean's thoroughness as a researcher. We learn that a black widow spider at London Zoo was 'beheaded', that the National Mouse Club maintained sheltered quarters for mice of rare breed, and that the blackout brought owls into central London. Orwell had a dog called Marx. Intrigued by the description of one Christopher Stone as a 'disc jockey', which seemed to me anachronistic, I probed further and found that he was indeed Britain's first (on Radio Luxembourg, no less). Major Stone of the Royal Fusiliers was a much decorated soldier and Old Etonian, known for his informal style as a broadcaster. He got into trouble for wishing, on air, a happy birthday to King Immanuel of Italy.

Mass animal deaths are not unknown in the field of animal-human relations. Kean tells us of the 1983 donkey massacre in the South African republic of Bophuthat-swana; and there is a reference to the Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint Severin in Paris in the 1730s. …

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