The Anzac legacy is a contentious one, as evidenced by the recent literary stoush over Marilyn Lake’s and Henry Reynolds’ What’s Wrong With Anzac. But if there’s one aspect of war we can all agree on, it’s that animals are pretty adorable.

Horses have gone to war for thousands of years — notably with medieval knights and the Mongol hordes — while elephants were deployed to fearsome success by ancient leaders including Alexander the Great and, famously, the Carthaginian general Hannibal.

The US Navy’s secretive Marine Mammal Program trains dolphins and sea lions to detect enemy sea mines and guard against intruding human divers; the equivalent Soviet program is rumoured to have trained dolphins to attack and kill humans.

Goats have been traditional in the British military since one strolled onto the Boston battlefield during the American Revolutionary War; a much-decorated war goat, Taffy IV, died in action in WWI. The Brits take their military goats seriously: a goat major was once court-martialled for “pr-stituting” his charge to a local breeder. (The court was unmoved by the major’s claims he did it out of sympathy for the goat.)

And in 1898, a regimental goat butted an unfortunate colonel who happened to be bending over. The English Illustrated Magazine called it “a disgraceful act of insubordination”.

Cats, meanwhile, have long prowled the decks of navy ships. Hilariously, in WWII the Royal Navy decreed that “all cats in naval establishments must wear collars at all times”, embroidered with their ships’ names. However, as nobody was inclined to stump up the funds for thousands of jaunty cat collars, the order was quietly ignored.

Other animal warriors came back to bite their military minders. During WWII, Soviet anti-tank dogs were supposed to crawl under enemy tanks like canine suicide bombers, but in practice the dogs were scared of gunfire and ran back to their trenches to blow up their own soldiers instead.

Around the same time, the United States gave the go-ahead to a $2 million “bat bomb” project, in which bats would detonate incendiary bombs over flammable Japanese buildings. A test run in a simulated village was a roaring success — so much so that the bats also burnt down the research facility and a hangar containing a general’s car.

Since the program wouldn’t be field-ready until 1945, the top brass made the fateful decision to develop nuclear weapons instead.

Here are some of Crikey’s favourite military animals:

Horrie The Wog Dog: So named because he was adopted in Egypt by Australian private Jim Moody (such carefree political correctness wouldn’t wash these days…) Horrie saw 18 months of active service from 1941-42 in Egypt, Crete, Greece, Palestine and Syria, giving early warning of enemy aircraft and carrying messages. Horrie was wounded by shrapnel and survived the sinking of the Dutch transport ship Costa Rica, but pitiless quarantine officials demanded he be put down on his return to Australia, despite Moody’s pleas that Horrie could aid wartime fundraising. The Truth tabloid bemoaned him as “a victim of Quarantine blood lust”. However, rumour has it that Horrie himself did not die in 1945, but rather a ring-in hastily obtained from the local pound, leaving the real Horrie to live out his days in idyllic Corryong.

Wojtek: With a name translating as “he who enjoys war”, this Syrian bear cub was rescued in Iran by Polish soldiers in 1943 and trained to transport ammunition in the heat of battle. Like his fellow soldiers he lived in tents, travelled in trucks, and enjoyed beer and cigarettes (which he ate). After the war Wojtek moved to Edinburgh Zoo, where he enjoyed considerable media attention (and surreptitiously thrown ciggies) until his death in 1963.

William Windsor: Known as “Billy”, Lance Corporal Windsor (Ret.) is a goat formerly attached to the Royal Welsh infantry battalion of the British Army. Billy is descended from the royal herd of cashmere goats given to Queen Victoria as an accession gift from the Shah of Persia. He was temporarily demoted to fusilier after an embarrassing display at the 2006 Queen’s Birthday parade in which he tried to headbutt a drummer. Before his retirement in May 2009, Billy received a daily ration of Guinness (“to keep the iron up”) and two cigarettes (“thought to be good for the coat”). Like Wojtek, he ate them.

Nils Olav: Perhaps the highest-ranked military animal, Colonel-in-Chief Sir Nils Olav is the penguin mascot of the Norwegian King’s Guard. He lives at Edinburgh Zoo and was adopted in 1971 while the guard was in town for the Military Tattoo. Nils rose rapidly through the ranks before dying in 1987. His successor, Nils Olav II, was knighted in 2008 by King Harald V of Norway amid much pomp and ceremony that, honestly, Nils did not appear to care very much about.

Sergeant Stubby: This pitbull-cross shipped out to France with his owner, John Conroy, and saw a month of combat in 1918. He learned to sniff out mustard gas, hear incoming shells before humans could and find wounded soldiers in no man’s land. He even captured a German spy! Back home, Stubby became a national celebrity and met three presidents: Wilson, Coolidge and Harding. He died in 1926, aged nine or 10.

Cher Ami: This brave little American pigeon saved the lives of 194 men at the Battle of the Argonne in 1918. His two comrades-in-wings having been Jerry-canned, Cher Ami flew his SOS message 25 miles in as many minutes, despite losing a leg, taking a shot to the breast and being blinded in one eye. Medics carved him a wooden replacement leg, and he returned to the US with the Croix de Guerre, but never fully recovered from his wounds and died in 1919. Unusually for a decorated veteran, he was stuffed and is now on display in the Smithsonian Institution …  alongside Sergeant Stubby.

Sabi: This elite Australian bomb-squad labrador served at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games before shipping out to Afghanistan to help detect improvised explosive devices. Insurgents ambushed her vehicle convoy on 2 September 2008, and Sabi was declared MIA. After 14 months, an American soldier noticed her accompanying a local man and returned her to her base.

Sabi’s return was duly trumpeted on Remembrance Day 2009; Kevin Rudd was making a surprise visit to Afghanistan at the time and got to meet her personally. What happened to Sabi while she was missing remains a mystery, although The Age’s Misha Schubert had plenty of silly ideas.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey