Canadian Animal
War Heroes

By Barb Amsden & Pam Andersson

Animals, birds, fish, and even insects have served in battle, saved lives, pulled ambulances, hauled heavy equipment, delivered messages, sniffed out bombs, been used as weapons, and been loyal friends. They have helped protect and save soldiers fighting, and raised morale.

During wartime, animals have sometimes played a crucial role.  In the First World War ( and even in the Second), horses, donkeys, mules – and even elephants and camels – carried food, water, ammunition, and medical supplies to men at the front and took wounded soldiers to medical help.  As well, dogs and pigeons carried messages, canaries were used to detect poisonous gas, dolphins and sea lions have been used to find underwater mines, and cats were trained to hunt rats in the trenches and in submarines.

Did you know… ?  Even glow-worms helped:  undetectable by the enemy in the dark, the lights of glow-worms enabled soldiers to read maps, messages, and precious letters from home.

Did you know… ?  There also are records of animals, birds, and insects used as, or to deliver, weapons: bat firebombs, bee swarms, and cattle stampedes.  Even chickens were an unusual part of a nuclear bomb plan.  Some of these creatures used as weapons had undesirable results as the ‘weapons” returned to those who released them.

Here are a few of the animals and birds that helped Canadian soldiers.


Bonfire – A WWI War Horse with a Medical Mission

Canadian Dr. John McCrae, better known for his poem In Flanders Fields, knew he would need transport when tending to wounded soldiers, and so took his horse Bonfire with him to Europe.  Riding Bonfire also was a way to take his mind off work and what he was seeing.  He also adopted an abandoned French Spaniel, who he called Bonneau.  John McCrae often wrote to his family in Canada during the war, frequently mentioning Bonfire and Bonneau, without sharing the true horrors of what he saw.  In one latter he wrote: “I have a very deep affection for Bonfire, for we have been through so much together, and some of it bad enough. All the hard spots to which one’s memory turns the old fellow has shared though he says so little about it.”


Dr. McCrae also wrote to his sister’s children pretending to be Bonfire, with a horseshoe at the bottom of the letter as a “signature.” In a letter to his young nephew, Jack Kilgour, McCrae wrote:

October 1st, 1916
Did you ever eat blackberries? My master and I pick them every day on the hedges. I like twenty at a time. My leg is better, but I have a lump on my tummy. I went to see my doctor today and he says it is nothing at all. I have another horse staying in my stable now; he is black and about half my size. He does not keep me awake at night.
Yours truly,

After Dr. McCrae became ill and died in the last year of the war, Bonfire took part in the doctor’s funeral procession.

Did you know… ?  Just before the Second World War in England, an air raid precautions committee had encouraged people to send pets out of cities or humanely to get rid of their pets.  “People were worried about the threat of bombing and food shortages, and felt it inappropriate to have the ‘luxury’ of a pet during wartime. … The Royal Army Veterinary Corps and the RSPCA tried to stop this, especially as dogs were needed for the war effort.” (Pip Dodd, senior curator at the National Army Museum)

Beyond their use for work, dogs, cats, and even less likely creatures also were kept as pets and mascots to raise morale and provide comfort, helping soldiers endure the hardships of war.  A few animals were smuggled from home, but most were local ones left homeless. The more unusual pets on record include monkeys, bears, lions, burros, a duck, and mice.

Many military units also adopted animals as mascots.  Perhaps the most famous of all was a Canadian born and bred bear.


Winnie – The Most Famous Mascot in WW1

The most famous Canadian mascot was an orphan black bear cub found by a trapper who sold her in White River, Manitoba to a passing soldier, Harry Colebourn.  British-born Canadian Colebourn, a trained veterinarian, was on a train from Winnipeg to Valcartier to join the Canadian forces on the way to Europe at the start of WWI.  He had joined the Mounted Rifles as a militia officer, and later becoming an officer with the 34th regiment of cavalry, Fort Garry Horse.  He named the bear Winnie after his adopted hometown of Winnipeg and the cub became the mascot for Colebourn’s regiment, sleeping under his cot.  When the regiment deployed to France, he donated Winnie to the London Zoo.  During the war, Colebourn cared for military animals, primarily horses, behind the lines of many major battles on the Western Front.

Back in the London Zoo, Winnie became popular with Zoo visitors, including Christopher Robin Milne, the son of A.A. Milne.  Christopher Robin called his teddy Winnie-the-Pooh, and the pair inspired the friendship stories Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928). While Winnie never made it to the front or saw battle, other animals did.


Sergeant Bill – WW1 Goat: started as mascot, promoted to Sergeant

The 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade (the “Fighting Fifth”) took a goat with them to First World War.  The brigade was comprised of men been recruited mainly from the west of Canada, including from Saskatoon, Regina and Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.  He became more than just a mascot or pet and was promoted from Bill to Sergeant Bill.  He also is credited (possibly warned by his better hearing – goats can hear a wider range and much higher pitches than humans) with saving three of his comrades in arms (soldiers) by head-butting them into a trench before a shell exploded where seconds before they had just stood.

Did you know… ?  We don’t.  That is, we have no idea how the men:  managed to sneak Bill (Bill E. Goat?) on board the ship and overseas to England; avoided having to quarantine him on arrival; and smuggled him to France after being ordered to leave him behind.  Nor do we know how he avoided being drummed out of the army after being placed under arrest for theft after in his billet (living quarters) were found chewed remnants of the battalion’s roll – the critical list of the soldiers’ regimental number, rank, name, former corps, next of kin and their address, country of birth, and place and date they were “taken on strength”. Nor do we know how Bill managed to avoid being summarily dismissed later, when he was arrested a second time within the month for charging a superior officer.  Luckily, all was forgiven when he began distinguishing himself in battle.

Like many of his human comrades, Sergeant Bill was gassed and wounded several times while on the front lines in Europe.  His exploits and the experiences he had in common with other soldiers, according to the November 1993 Canadian Veterinary Journal, include the following:

  • At Ypres, Sergeant Bill was found in a shell crater, bleeding from a shrapnel wound, but still standing guard over one of the enemy – a Prussian soldier.
  • He was chlorine-gassed during the Second Battle of Ypres and could not be found: the “boys” (men of his battalion) feared he had been captured by allies – Bengal Lancers from India – who were said to like goat curry (luckily, he was found safe and sound… apart from the effects of the gas and wounds, of course).
  • He got trench foot – an uncomfortable, and sometimes death-causing, medical condition resulting from feet being kept wet for extended periods.
  • He was shell-shocked at Hill 70 in April 1917 during the battle for Vimy Ridge.
  • He was wounded twice by shrapnel at Festubert.
  • He also was decorated, receiving the Mons Star when it was recognized that his butting of three two-footed comrades into a mud-filled trench had saved their lives. He additionally received the General Service Medal (for serving in the war) and the Victory Medal (for having been involved in battle during the war).

After Armistice Day, Sergeant Bill marched in a parade in Germany wearing his blue coat with proper sergeant’s stripes.  When the Fighting Fifth got home to western Canada, Sergeant Bill led the parade.  When he died, Bill was stuffed, mounted, and placed in the Saskatchewan Legislative Building, eventually turned over to Broadview, where he now has a place of honor in the Broadview Museum.


Morning Glory:  Quebec’s little-known war horse of WW1

Lt.-Col. George Harold (Harry) Baker, born in 1877 in Sweetsburg (now part of Cowansville) in the hilly farmlands in the Eastern Townships, about 120 kilometres southeast of Montreal.  He came from a well-off Loyalist family that had been prominent in the Townships for generations. His father, and some other relatives, had been members of both the Quebec and the Canadian Parliaments, and active in the legal field.  Harry followed his family tradition – attended Bishop’s College School and then McGill, and, in 1911, was elected Brome’s Conservative Party Member of Parliament.

Harry had always been active with the local militia; when war broke out in 1914, he started his military career with the regular forces.  In 1915, as horses were his passion, he raised the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles (5th CMR), recruiting 600 men – about half the unit – from the Townships.

At the time, Harry owned a horse called Morning Glory, which he kept at a farm in Brome and used for practicing charges and shooting from the saddle with his men when they were on manoeuvres – a important cavalry skill.  When he and his men left for England in 1915, and later that same year went to France, Morning Glory accompanied him, but the two were separated when Harry and his men were reclassified as infantry and sent to the trenches.

Morning Glory caught the eye of a battalion commander, who took her for his personal mount, allowing the horse to escape the fate of so many other horses that used to drag heavy equipment through muddy roads and fields.  Harry even got to see her from time to time, and mentioned her in a letter home from Belgium in May 1916:

“I saw Morning Glory day before yesterday; she is in the pink of condition. I hope someday to have her back.”

Sadly, this was the last time Harry ever saw his horse. Baker, who had gone to war thinking he would lead the charge atop his horse, instead died down in the mud on June 2, 1916 at Maple Copse in Sanctuary Wood during the Battle of Ypres. He is the only Canadian Member of Parliament to have been killed in war.

Although it was unusual for a horse to be shipped back from overseas, General Dennis Draper, a friend of Baker, brought Morning Glory back to Quebec after the war, where she lived a further 18 years.  Morning Glory is buried behind Glenmere, a home at Baker Pond, where a large bronze plaque is attached to a rock on a hill.  The inscription, is blackened in places and hard to read, says: “Here lies Morning Glory, a faithful charger who served overseas 1915-1918. Died 1936 aged 26 years.”


Warrior – WW1 horse

Warrior was the horse of Captain Jack Seely during the First World War. Seely and Warrior served throughout the entire war, travelling to France with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in 1914 and returning home in the winter of 1918.  They survived some of the fiercest fighting of the war, on the Somme and at Ypres; being buried under debris at Passchendaele; and twice being trapped in a burning stable.  Seely and Warrior led men of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade in the last major cavalry charge of the war, at Moreuil Wood, in March 1918.  Casualties were high, with a quarter of the men and half the horses killed.  Warrior escaped unscathed, only to be injured while travelling to his next post. Warrior was dubbed ‘the horse the Germans could not kill’.  Warrior’s bravery was an inspiration to the soldiers who faced their fears every day.

In 2014, 100 years after the war’s outbreak, Warrior was posthumously awarded an honorary Dickin Medal on behalf of all animals who served in the First World War.  The Dickin Medal, sometimes referred to as the ‘animals’ VC‘, was instituted in 1943 to recognise acts of bravery and devotion to duty by animals during periods of war or conflict.

Did you know… ?  The Dickin Medal was established by Maria Dickin, founder of a British veterinary charity called People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), to be awarded to “any animal displaying conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty whilst serving with British Empire armed forces or civil emergency services.


Gander – A dog in WW2

Gander was a Newfoundland dog raised on the airport base in… you guessed it, Gander, Newfoundland.  When he grew up, he was given to the Royal Rifles of Canada Regiment stationed at the airport and quickly became their mascot.  He was given the rank of Sergeant and accompanied the regiment when they were sent to Hong Kong in 1941 to defend it from an enemy invasion.  His job was to bark and nip at the legs of the enemy to scare them away, and the men treated him as a fellow soldier.

Sergeant Gander was credited with saving the lives of seven wounded soldiers during WW2.  A grenade had been tossed next to the soldiers and Gander ran to pick it up and take it away. The soldiers never forgot the big Newfoundland dog who gave his life for them.  He was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal for his bravery – the first Canadian animal to receive one.   His medal now is displayed at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.


Beachcomber – A WW2 carrier pigeon

Beachcomber was a carrier pigeon that travelled with the Canadian Forces during a raid on the French port of Dieppe in August 1942.  Shortly after the battle started, Canadian soldiers released Beachcomber to relay back to England the news of their successful landing at Dieppe.  While the raid was a disaster for the Canadians, with 907 killed and 1,946 captured, the pigeon is said to have accomplished his mission despite having to fly through an aerial dogfight and efforts by the Germans to down such birds.  For this, he was awarded the Dickin Medal in 1944.


Sam – A German Shepherd dog in the Bosnia-Herzegovina War

Although a member of the British Army, this German shepherd and his handler were on assignment with the Royal Canadian Regiment in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1998 when he helped bring down and capture a gunman who had fired on Canadian peacekeepers.  Sam later was instrumental in helping keep a mob from attacking ethnic Serbs until reinforcements could arrive. He died shortly after retiring at the age of 10 in 2000, and was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal in 2002.


Hughes – A Donkey in the Afghan War

Canadian military engineers bought this small donkey from a group of Afghan National Army soldiers to help carry heavy equipment and supplies during the war in Afghanistan.  But Hughes, who was named by his owners after a fellow soldier back home, quickly became more than just a pack animal, thanks to his role in helping Canadian military engineers unwind in Kandahar after long days searching for improvised explosive devices.


Animals in War Dedication – Ottawa

Animals in War is a composite memorial sculpture located at Confederation Park in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  It honours animals that served with their human Canadian comrades in war.  It commemorates tens of thousands of horses, dogs, and other animals that served Canada and the Canadian military during times of war and peace.  These animals and birds have helped with everything from transporting equipment and supplies to carrying messages to saving troops under fire. Their sacrifices are memorialized in the monument erected in 2012 near the National War Memorial in Ottawa.  The monument is comprised of a bronze, life-sized statue of a medical service dog, wearing a replica of a medical backpack used by war dogs in the First World War, on a surface printed with footprints of dogs, horses, and mules, representing the marks they left on the battlefield.  The dog stands guard over three bronze plaques honouring horses, mules, and dogs in war, describing their roles, sacrifices, and loyalty.

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Animals in War was actually the second tribute to animals in Ottawa.  The first can be found the at the Peace Tower’s Memorial Chamber, completed in 1927, which displays Books of Remembrance.  It commemorates the armistice of 1918 and the sacrifice of Canada and Canadians during the First World War.  Above the entrance to the Memorial Chamber, there is a tympanum –  a triangular space over the door between the lintel and the arch – that provides a commemoration for animals.  The carvings are of donkeys, reindeers, and horses used as pack animals; dogs with first aid kits attached to their collars; carrier or passenger pigeons used to send messages; and field mice and canaries – put in the trenches to tell soldiers if there was toxic gas, hence the name, the tunnellers’ friends.  In World War 1, specialist miners were assigned to dig tunnels under “No Man’s Land” to listen, sometimes, and also to place mines beneath enemy defensive positions. When detonated, the mines destroyed parts of trenches that formed the enemy’s defense and protection.

The inscription over the entrance reads: “The tunnellers’ friends, the humble beasts that served and died.”


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