The Unsung Heroes of War – Cats on the Frontlines
War is a time of chaos, destruction and loss; a time when brave men and women risk their lives to defend their countries and their people. But in the midst of all the devastation, there were many four-legged soldiers who also played a crucial role in the war efforts – cats. It is estimated that around 500,000 cats were deployed to the trenches during the war, where they hunted rats and mice that would otherwise have infested the surroundings, spread disease and destroyed provisions.
Beyond their role as vermin hunters, cats became a source of comfort and companionship to soldiers and sailors alike. Historians believe that the ancient Egyptians were the first to realize the value of having cats on board ships. They not only provided protection by ridding ships of vermin, but also offered sailors companionship on long voyages. More traditionally-minded seafarers believed that having cats aboard brought good luck as well.
During the First World War, cats could be found in trenches, aboard ships and even on the battlefield, serving not just as protectors but also as friends to the soldiers. They were given names, stories were made up about them and they became a permanent fixture in the memories of many soldiers.
To honor these unsung heroes of the war, let’s take a look at some of their photos and stories.
– The HMS Encounter, a Royal Australian Navy cruiser that served in World War I, had a black and white feline crew member. The cat was said to have gone down with the ship when it was sunk by the Germans in 1914.
– Togo was the feline mascot of the battleship HMS Dreadnought. He reportedly traveled 140,000 miles with the ship and survived a severe gale that caused the ship to roll heavily.
– Pincher was the mascot of the HMS Vindex and is said to have had a larger family than most cats – he was the father of six kittens during his time aboard the ship.
– A Canadian soldier with his unit’s mascot, “Tabby,” on Salisbury Plain in September 1914.
– Two men of the 9th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders (15th Division), with their pet cat, “Martinpuich,” in August 1916.
– A sailor on board the Royal Australian Navy Destroyer HMAS Swan shaking “Ching,” the ship’s mascot’s paw.
– Portrait of Company O’Connor Men with cat in August 1915.
– A cat, probably a mascot, looks up expectantly at the approach of an unidentified soldier in the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915.
– Officers of the U.S. 2nd Army Corps with a cat they discovered in the ruins of Le Cateau-Cambrésis.
– A gunner with the regimental cat in a trench in Cambrin, France, in February 1918.
– Two cats pose in the breech of a 4-inch caliber gun aboard an unidentified U.S. ship.
One particularly heartwarming story is that of Pitouchi, a cat that was born in the trenches. When his mother was killed and he was left all alone, he was adopted and nursed back to health by Lieutenant Lekeux of the Belgian army. Pitouchi followed the officer everywhere he went, and one day, he saved his life. As they approached a spot near the German lines, Lekeux was so absorbed in making a sketch of the German works that he did not notice approaching German soldiers on patrol. When he finally realized his situation, it was too late to run. But Pitouchi heard the Germans say, “He’s in the hole,” and he jumped out of the hole onto a piece of timber. The Germans were startled, and they fired two shots at Pitouchi, but he was not hit. Pitouchi jumped back into the hole with his beloved Lekeux, and the German soldiers laughed and joked that they had mistaken a cat for a man and left.
In conclusion, cats are more than just cuddly house pets; they are also brave and resilient comrades in arms, whose stories should not be forgotten by time. They played a vital role in protecting soldiers from disease-ridden rodents and bringing them companionship during an otherwise bleak time. As we honor those who fought for our freedoms, let us also remember and honor the bravery of the feline soldiers who were there with them, every step of the way.