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Unconventional Animals in the History of Warfare
By Alexander J. Knights, 14 April 2007; Revised
Category: Natural History
Throughout history copious kinds of animals have played their part in war, some seeing more action than others.
From the dogs of war in Ancient Greece, Rome and Europe, to the highly intelligent sabotage dolphins of the 21st century, a myriad of animals have seen action or at least served a purpose for military motives. Some have earned themselves renowned bravery awards, but most have gone unnoticed.
In this article, all creatures great and small will be covered, from Elephants and Rhinoceroses to Pigeons and Assassin Bugs. The role animals have played in war over the centuries is fascinating, diverse, and in many cases, very decisive.
The earliest records of the use of canines in war are from 2100BC, when Hammurabi employed dogs to fight alongside his most elite warriors. The Lydians and Persians used Dogs as a specific military unit later on. The first Western recorded use of the dog in war come from Pliny the elder, in his Naturalis Historia (Natural History) written around 77AD, as well as Aristotle’s Historia Animalium (History of Animals) written in approximately 343BC.
Dogs are said to have been bred for different purposes in Greece, such as to accompany women at home, shepherd dogs and war dogs. The Epirotes had particularly large and savage dogs bred for war, though the Greek city states tended to avoid them and preferred guard and shepherd dogs.
It is widely believed that the Greeks used specially trained war dogs at the Battle of Marathon. Greece was at dire straits and even allowed slaves to fight in the army, raising their social status. This means it is not too farfetched to believe dogs were used at the battle. Claudius Aelianus certainly recounts the heroic efforts of a master’s dog at the battle, in De Natura Animalium. As a part of the Stoa Poikile mural Panasios depicted one particularly brave dog in a painting of his, with the dog seated next to Miltiades, Kallymachos and Kynegeira, just after Marathon.
Pliny, in Book VIII, Ch XL of Naturalis Historia, writes, “The Colophonians [Lydians] and Castabaleans, maintained certain squadrons of mastiff dogs, for their war service: and those were put in the [front line] … and were never known to draw back and refuse fight”. This is a perfect example of the unmatched loyalty and courage of the dog, which is evident in numerous other cases throughout history. Dogs were present at the Siege of Mantineia in the Peloponnesian Wars.
Later on, the Celts bred fearsome war dogs, but were promptly copied by the ever-adaptable Romans, who were able to raise savage beasts whose role was to strike fear into the enemy, and pursue fleeing soldiers and horses. At the Battle of Vercellae (Part of the Cimbrian War) women were accompanied by a large party of war dogs. Upon the Roman conquest of Britain, the Pugnaces Britanniae was discovered, a pre-cursor to today's Mastiff.
During the Middle Ages, Great Danes and Mastiffs were bred in Western Europe, for war. Their primary role was to jump onto the backs of horses, throwing the rider off, and allowing their master to dispose of the horseman. They were also used to scare horses and pursue fleeing enemies. However, it was now that the idea of rescue dogs was being pioneered. Dogs were sent out to search for and either stand over or drag back fallen soldiers to camp, while others would remain at the baggage camp to protect camp followers and treasures/goods during the battle.
A legendary tale has arisen from the Battle of Agincourt, where Englishmen Sir Peers Legh was severely wounded, but his Mastiff stood over him until the end of the battle. Legh later died of his wounds, but the dog returned to Legh’s residence.
The role of dogs as aids in war rather than direct warriors was beginning, however, the use of dogs as front line warriors would not completely cease for centuries to come.
The 16th century conquistadors employed tactics not dissimilar to those of the Celts and Romans over a millennium earlier. Dressing their huge mastiffs in quilted overcoats, they were released into native villages, mauling the residents and wreaking havoc. They were also used to pursue and combat Aztec warriors at several battles.
A war dog academy was established in Scotland, and one such canine from this institution is famed for braving 4km of hectic trench systems to deliver a message to headquarters. Special kennels were located behind the lines, to nurse injured dogs and tend to the fighting dogs. Dogs were even fitted with custom gas masks when sent out to the trenches and no-man’s land.
Along with being messengers, dogs were also used for transport and rescue purposes. On the Western Front, dogs were used to pull machine guns on wheels. Furthermore, refugee carts were dragged by dogs. Used too as rescuers of the injured, dogs were honored with a myriad of bravery medals and awards.
The Germans also had war dogs, an estimated 200,000 trained for war and police duties. Of these, 25,000 were donated to Japan in their efforts against China.
In Russia, Samoyeds were used as sled dogs, hauling marksmen, guns and supplies in the white snow laden wilderness of the Eastern Front. An anonymous Russian spokesman exclaimed “dogs have saved thousands upon thousands of lives on the Russian front”.
The role of ‘Man’s Best Friend’ in the First World War was monumental, but still widely unrecognised. Over time, their efforts are being given more respect, as their sacrifice is unsurpassed only by humans.
In the Second World War, dogs played a much more active role in the Pacific War. On the Island of Bouganville in the Pacific (Solomon Islands), American Marines were issued what were commonly known as ‘Devil dogs’ – Dobermans, forming the First War Dog Platoon. They replaced the night duty Marines, and to a fuller extent. Their excellent sense of smell and hearing allowed Japanese infiltrators to be detected early, and gunned down or captured. The issuing proved so successful that no unit accompanied by the Devil Dogs was overrun by the Japanese. This First War Dog platoon also served in Guam and Okinawa.
The Second and Third War Dog Platoons saw action at Guadalcanal, Kwajalein, Enewetak, and Guam.
War Dogs served the British and Allies in Burma and South East Asia throughout the war, playing similar roles to the US Marine’s dogs.
Trained by serving food to the dogs only under tanks for their first years, the Tankdogs were used to damage or destroy enemy tanks. With explosives strapped to their backs, and a wooden lever for detonation, the dogs would be starved and then released onto the field of battle. Famished, the poor canines were meant to run beneath enemy tanks (where they believed food would be). The lever would hit the underneath of the tank and detonate, killing dog and damaging the tank. The problem was though, that the dogs were trained on the tanks of the Americans and Russians, so many would run for their own tanks. This tactic was stopped because of the cost on the Americans and Russian’s part.
On one instance, so many Tankdogs were running loose around the battlefield that the engagement was halted while the dogs were taken out one by one. World War Two saw plenty of canine heroics, but far too much needless destruction of the poor souls. The use of dogs for military purposes continued nevertheless.
During the Cold War, dogs were trained as couriers for small nuclear devices, but never saw practical service.
To this day, dogs are trained for militaristic purposes, even in the US army. Though none have seen direct action since the Gulf War, they are still trained for war.
The role of the dog as a direct warrior in battle or indirect tool in the overall war effort has been a very significant, and of late, rather well recognised one. They have stood by man’s side over several millennia, and remained loyal even through the greatest of hardships. It is no wonder why they have been dubbed ‘Man’s Best Friend’.
The bats were fitted with incendiary devices and put into hibernation just before the big drop. Most failed to wake up however, and plummeted to their death.
Later on, new technology allowed the bats to be dropped awake, but they still failed to fulfill their role. The incendiary device was surgically attached to the loose skin of the bat’s underbelly, and had an irritant in it. The plan was that the bat would chew at the irritant, eventually sparking the detonation (or release of) the explosive.
The project encountered far too many complications, and was ditched shortly afterwards. Dr. Adams still believed that fire bombing Japan would have been much effective than dropping an atomic bomb, resulting in more structural damage, and far less loss of life.
While bats never faced direct combat, they experienced their share in the war, and many are thankful they never suffered the real thing.
Monkeys are not your typical animal of war, however there is the sporadic account of monkeys being used for militaristic purposes, in history.
The first recorded use of monkeys in war was by Shi Bo. In a battle between the Southern Song forces under Zhao Yu and an army of the Yanzhou, monkeys were set alight and ravaged the enemy camp. By tying rope and covering the monkeys in straw, the Imperial soldiers were able to set the monkeys on fire, and send them in a hurried panic towards the enemy and their camp.
In the Modern Era monkeys are not used in any direct conflict, but are used behind the scenes in experiments, frequently.
In 2003, Morocco offered the United States Military in Iraq an unusual gift, to help in mine clearing. 2000 specially trained monkeys had been imported and gathered from Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, to be used for detonating mines in Iraq.
The original source was Rabat’s weekly ‘al-Ubsu' al-Siyass’. ‘The Guardian’ quickly picked up on the story, reporting “The Moroccan government, according to the Rabat weekly al-Ubsu' al-Siyass, has offered US troops in Iraq 2,000 monkeys trained in detonating landmines to assist the war effort”. It went on to quote the Rabat paper, saying “not a scientific illusion but a well-known military tactic”.
Whether the US government accepted the offer is unclear, but most believe they did not take it up, due to overwhelming opposition.
Overall, monkeys have played a very minor role in warfare directly, but a huge part behind the scenes, in experimenting and tests. Regardless, it has still been utilised as an animal of war, and a very obscure one at that.
Arguably the most brutal use of dolphins was the United States’ ‘Swimmer Nullification Program’ during the Vietnam War. The dolphins were at first trained to seek out Vietcong divers
The dolphins excelled at their job, and were soon promoted to a more aggressive stance. The program soon incorporated training which taught dolphins to tear off the unidentified diver’s face mask, flippers and air-tube and drag him to American Navy personnel for interrogation, back at the shore.
Once again, the exceptionally bright dolphins surpassed all expectations and knives were attached to their rostrums. The dolphins could then kill divers on the spot, by driving the knife into them.
Subsequently, the Marines theorised a far more sadistic and entirely unnecessary tactic. They fastened hypodermic syringes to the Dolphins’ rostrums, filled with pressurised Carbon Dioxide. What happened as a result was truly horrific. 40 Vietcong divers were injected throughout the war, literally ‘blowing up’ due to the pressurised Carbon Dioxide in their blood. 2 US divers suffered this fate too, by mistake.
The Soviets also had a dolphin training program within the military but it soon ran out of funds, leaving the trainees starved.
As a part of the program the animals were trained to carry explosives towards enemy warships and frogmen, and were remotely detonated on contact – basically, suicide bombers.
Recently in 2000 however, the group of animals were sold to Iran by the Russians, though it is unknown the purpose they will serve. It was the only choice for their trainer Boris Zhurid.
The primary animals used are Bottlenose Dolphins Tursiops truncatus, Orcas Orcinus orca and Sea Lions Otariidae, though Walruses Odobenus rosmarus, Fur Seals Arctocephalinae, Cormorants Phalacrocoracidae, Rays Dasyatidae and Sharks Selachimorpha are still studied and involved in the program.
Three sea-mine detection systems are underway, MK 4, MK 7 and MK 8. All involve the dolphins echolocating sea mines and alerting their trainers, who in turn send them to the sea mine. The dolphin marks out the location to be avoided or attended to by Navy Divers.
Other object retrieval and detection systems are being employed in the program, and some 75 dolphins and 20 Sea Lions are currently serving in the Persian Gulf.
Diver detection is still used, but the diver is not killed by the dolphin/sea lion.
Using their keen intelligence, and biological adaptations, marine mammals such as Dolphins and Sea Lions are being used for beneficial military purposes worldwide. Marine Mammals have a bright future in terms of military service and operations.
Of all the Aves of war in history, one gets the culminated award for bravery, endurance, sacrifice and hardiness – the Pigeon.
Rock Pigeons Columbia livia are the most common type of pigeon, and that which is typically associated with homing, carrying and as messenger birds.
Originating in Ancient times, the use of the pigeon is demonstrated after the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar. He sent messenger pigeons to relay the news home, to Rome.
Pigeons were used widely in the Middle East, where magnificent pigeon houses were built. Pigeons were used too at Waterloo, where the news of Napoleon’s defeat arrived in England and her armies in France/Belgium, via carrier pigeon.
One famous and heroic instance of pigeons used in battle, was Paris’s siege of 1870 and 1871.
With the aid of photography, messages were copied on ‘collodian’, a primitive form of microfilm, thus allowing more messages to be carried per flight by the carrier pigeons. During the four months of the siege, pigeons brought 150,000 official letters and a million private letters into Paris.
It was arduous for the courageous pigeons, as great deal of them were shot at by the Prussian and pro-Prussian French Army, surrounding Paris. Regardless, they served their purpose very well, despite a crushing French defeat.
World War One again saw wide-range use of the pigeon. There is one particularly heroic and famed pigeon of the War, Cher Ami.
During part of the fighting in the Argonne Forest in France, a group of allied soldiers were trapped between their own troops and the German troops. The trapped troops began to mistakenly be fired upon by their own allied soldier’s artillery. The unit had carrier pigeons with them, and released them with the command to halt friendly fire. However, as the group of soldiers began to release carrier pigeons to warn their fellow soldiers to cease firing upon them, every pigeon was shot down by the Germans. One lone pigeon was finally able to fly through the gunfire. He flew 25 miles and delivered his message, helping to save the allied soldiers – Cher Ami. The brave pigeon acted beyond his size, and species, being seriously wounded in the process. He lost an eye, and his leg and breastbone were pierced by bullets. Cher Ami was awarded the French "Croix de Guerre" for his heroic service.He later died from his injuries.
Pigeons again played a similar role in World War Two. “About 200,000 pigeons were supplied by private breeders to the National Pigeon Service and 50,000 were bred by the United States Army.” Once again the pigeon proved to be a very suitable and courageous bird, ideal for the military. Some of the birds were rewarded for outstanding service and received the ‘Dickin Medal’, the animal version of the Victoria Cross.
More recently, pigeons have played a part in the Gulf War, and are now being used in Iraq, along with parakeets. Trained by the British Troops in the Gulf, the birds are used as indicators to the presence of chemical and nerve agents.
While the pigeon is well known for its antics in war, other birds have been used too, such as swallows, Hirundinidae.
The bird is a valuable animal in war, as it can cover vast distances with expediency, while avoiding much of the conflict. Throughout history and to this day, they have served as messengers of telegrams, letters, and death.
Three of the heavy guns in ancient warfare were the rhinoceros Rhinocerotidae, the ox Bovidae and the elephant Elephantidae. The latter two are globally accepted as proven war animals, though it is the former which has sparked debate, especially in recent times.
Albrecht Durer - through a woodcut - illustrated the use of heavily armoured rhinos used by Portuguese soldiers in order to combat the war elephants.
Furthermore, some evidence suggests that the Ahoms, the people of Assam (Far North East India) used Rhinos as literal tanks in battle. First step was to heavily intoxicate them with alcohol, then just give them a stern sudden shock and, there you have it - decimated enemy units in an instant. Plus, the thick and roughly textured skin would protect against arrows, especially in the Indian/Greater One Horned Rhinoceros Rhinoceros unicornis, with its almost armour like plates.
Oxen were used widely throughout Ancient and Medieval China. With explosives and gunpowder strapped to them, they would charge through formations, annihilating anything in their paths. Oxen also played a role in transporting siege engines (such as belfries, rams and catapults) and baggage trains. They were strong and very resilient.
Hannibal devised a cunning plan in order to overcome the barrier of waiting Romans surrounding the valley. The idea was that all of the army’s oxen and those from surrounding villages would be herded up the mountain as a decoy and distraction. It doesn't stop there though; Hannibal's soldiers all tied cloth to the horns of the beasts and with the onset of darkness, set the rags alight sending the oxen hording up the will in panic. The Roman forces thought this to be a charging Carthaginian army because of the expediency, noise and 'torches', so called a large part of their forces to be concentrated around the pass in which the "army" was heading to. Some men followed with the oxen to keep them heading in the same direction. Meanwhile, Hannibal and the rest of his forces slipped virtually unscaved through the now weakly fortified pass out of the valley.
Finally - Elephants. Elephants were the most feared beasts of the Ancient World’s battlegrounds. They were huge, powerful and very imposing.
From the Achaemenids, to Greeks and Diadochi, the Carthaginians to the Sassanids, elephants were used in many battles as tanks, plowing down the enemy while firing at them at the same time.
Phrryus, King of Epirus, used elephants in his war against the Romans. Hannibal took elephants over the Alps to ambush the Romans. At battles such as Magnesia, Zama and Beneventum, Elephants were lined up in all their glory and splendour, all facing the Romans. It was the Romans who learned to counter the elephants, a hallmark of the Roman’s ability to adapt, and learn from their mistakes.
The Indians were the real master mahouts of the elephant. Dressed in full battle attire, an Indian War Elephant Elephas maximus was even more potent than the smaller African Forest Elephants Loxodonta africana pharaoensis (this subspecies of African Forest Elephant is now extinct) of the West.
Chandragupta Maurya used over 9,000 in his wars, while the Kalinga Wars and the campaigns of Samudragupta saw further mass use of elephants in warfare. Elephants have even been used in the Early Modern Age. One such example is that of the Sikhs, in the Anglo-Sikh Wars between 1845 and 1849.
Using such animals in war was very costly, and though they were not used en masse, their effect in a battle tended to be very decisive. Those who had not encountered such beasts would have been utterly terrified, as the Gauls were upon Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. These really were living tanks of the Ancient and Medieval Worlds.
The first records of these are from Pliny who explains their tactical use in warfare. Phyrrus' opponents (the Romans) used Incendiary (covered in pitch/tar then set alight - sent forth) Pigs in some battles to counter his elephants. This was their primary use in warfare - anti-elephant tools. The high-pitched loud squeals and fire would send the giant elephants into ‘hyper-mode’.
Historically, rats Rattus rattus, Rattus norvegicus have been little more than a fire-delivery tool in warfare; however recently, the role of rodents in war has taken on a whole new meaning. In ancient and medieval times, it was typical to see a horde of rats set aflame and sent forth into the enemy’s camp or city. They would create fires all over the target allowing the offender to strike.
Presently, rodents are being used in a far more civilised fashion – landmine detectors.
The Gambian Pouched Rat Cricetomys gambianus is the forerunner in a project led by the US Military. The Gambian Pouched Rats have an acute sense of smell and can easily detect and point out the location of land mines. This may seem barbaric to send a small innocent rat into a mine field, but the Gambian Pouched weighs no more than 4kg. This is rather voluptuous for a rat, but it is not enough to trigger the mines to detonate. So far the program has been very successful and without loss of life. The Gambian Pouched rat is not in fact a true rat, but an African Muroid Rodent.
Surprisingly, even snakes and scorpions were used in large scale warfare, as well as in assassinations. Cleopatra attracts all the attention; her and her ‘asps’12.
In history, large scale battles involved snakes as the decisive factors. It happened on at least two occasions.
The Scythians and some other steppe people are believed to have collaborated a mixture of decaying/decomposing adder Vipera pontica,V. berus, V. berani, V. Nikoloskii (snake) bodies, human blood and various animal faeces into large vats, where they would be left to combine and become a feral disgusting bacteria ridden load of sludgy liquid. This mixture would then be applied to arrow tips of the Horse Archers. The results after being hit by one of these poisoned arrows were horrid. Your Central Nervous System would begin to dysfunction, going haywire due to the toxins, deeming the Peripheral Nervous System unable to communicate effectively with the brain and Central Nervous System. Respiratory Paralysis usually followed shortly after, while the Bacteria attacked the Blood Cells and rapidly ate away at your flesh from the inside out
Another instance was the idea of the genius that is, Hannibal Barca.
Not many people know of his Admiral and Naval antics, but this is where his use of biological warfare was really highlighted. In a Naval Engagement against the King of Pergamum, Eumenes II, while a mercenary for a certain Empire in the East13, Hannibal filled thousands of clay jars with venomous snakes and took them aboard his outnumbered and doomed fleet. As the Pergumese fleet approached, the command was given to hurl all the jars onto enemy ships. As the jars smashed, the snakes crawled out and wreaked absolute havoc among not only the sailors up top, but the oarsmen too. Snake filled Jars were being flung left right and centre and the end result was in Hannibal's favour, with him winning a comprehensive victory due to the chaos he created in the enemy's ranks.
At the Siege of Hatra in 116 and 117 AD, Trajan’s Romans were hailed upon by terracotta pots of surprise packages. The residents of Hatra had filled the pots with scorpions Scorpiones and assassin bugs Reduviidae (Genera include Melanolestes, Psellipus, Rasahus, Reduvius, Rhiginea, Sineai, Triatoma, Zelus). Considering the Roman’s siege record, this must have been an extremely effective tactic, as the Romans were repelled in 20 days.
By capitalising upon the natural abilities of an animal, they can be effectively used as lethal weapons of war, and this is illustrated all throughout history, but especially in these examples.
The use of animals in war has a lengthy and diverse history. From Indian War Elephants of the Ancient World, to Modern Day Gambian Pouched Rats, animals – despite how unconventional some might seem – have played a monumental part in the advancement and playing out of warfare.
 The Battle of Marathon occurred in 490BC between the Persians and Greek Allies, during the first invasion of Greece by Persia.
 (Painted Porch) A famed mural erected in the Athenian Agora in the 5th century BC. It is the culmination of several artists’ works.
 This dog gave rise to the Lyme Park mastiffs. They symbolized loyalty and bravery, and are still existent today. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyme_Park>
 Dogs numbered 200,000 according to <http://www.geocities.com/Athens/1878/wardog.html#combat>
 The Bouganville campaign lasted from 1943-1945 and was fought between the Japanese and Allied Forces.
 Source: Doberworld. (2000). “War Dog – Combat” < http://www.geocities.com/Athens/1878/wardog.html#combat> Retrieved 12/4/07
 Addley, E. (Friday 28 March 2003) “Behind the Lines” The Guardian
 Delegated Marines were commissioned to patrol the ports where SNP Dolphins lurked, while trainers would accompany them to interpret a signal given by the dolphins.
 In total, 27 animals, including walruses, dolphins, sea lions, seals, cormorants and a white beluga whale
 Source: BBC News Report “A tribute to war time pigeons” <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/2810185.stm>
 Parakeets are small to medium-sized, long-tailed parrots. More information can be found on them here: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parakeet>