animals, the forgotten heroes of the front and of our wars

Many do not realize this when we commemorate the armistice of 1918, but animals, especially domestic ones, played an important part in conflicts. 120,000 of them even received military awards for acts of bravery. Whether worn to death or elevated to mascot status. On the occasion of the commemorations of November 11, 2022, an exhibition in Besançon (Doubs) traces their participation in the battle.

The use of animals in conflicts is not recent. From Antiquity, Hannibal and his crossing of the Alps on the back of an elephant in 218 BC. JC marks the spirits of the historical stories of Polybius and Livy.

“I want to pay tribute to the animals who are victims of wars. For me, they are the ones forgotten by these conflicts. It is estimated that 14 million animals were enlisted in the First World War. It is important to remember their main role” explains Marie Thérèse Michel, municipal councilor in charge of animal welfare in Besançon, behind this very educational exhibition.

Orianne Vatin, historian of the exhibition, chose to focus more specifically on two world conflicts of the 20th century, and on a little-known war between Napoleon’s army and Austrian troops at Besançon in 1814.

This is an event that few Bisontins know about, but the city has experienced Napoleonic battles. During the French campaign of 1814 that led to the abdication of Napoleon I, 15,000 soldiers from the Austrian Empire besieged the city from January to May. A state of siege was declared and the city had to face many hardships. Historian Orianne Vatin, found in the municipal archives is a rare document.

“We clearly see in this anonymous letter that General Marula decided to sacrifice the dogs of the city in this letter intended for the Baron Daclinmayor of Besançon. I quote: a large number of people in the city with only a small supply leave their dogs rather than destroy them” explained Orianne Vatin.

The historian then read us this letter in which the general asked the police to intervene against these animals “which may be rabid and harmful and require the destruction of dogs owned by individuals who do not have sufficient means to feed them”.

All the inhabitants of Besançon know the Bastion. This tower on the banks of the Doubs, built under Vauban, was a military dovecote in the 19th century. In fact, from the military invasion of 1870-1871, the use of carrier pigeons made it possible to compensate for the suppression of communications during the conflict.

Animals can also be emblems for a regiment. These mascots gave soldiers some comfort in the face of the horrors of war. They create unity and harmony. “Soldiers of 5th The Artillery Regiment of Besançon poses next to a dog that they lovingly dress with a cap, regulations confirming its membership in the regiment. They fought on the Marne, on the Champagne, on the Meuse to end their war at Verdun and the Somme” details Orianne Vatin who unearthed this amazing image.

Even the woman of letters Colette, who lived in the heights of Besançon, paid tribute in 1915 to the role of medical dogs that helped the wounded. They are trained to find soldiers who need rescuing, to supply them or to return their belongings.

A medal was even issued. The historian presents a rare example that is part of his personal collection.

If the war of 1939-1945 was more mechanized, horses again took part in the battle. Because of this, the historian Orianne Vatin, has obtained a piece that is as wonderful as it is unique. The Russian army plans to give its horses gas masks!

The mask was placed over the horse’s muzzle and a pair of goggles protected the eyes. It is very rare to find iconography that attests to the use of this type of material.

World War II was an aerial bombing war in which civilians suffered greatly. Underground shelters provided protection in case of enemy bombers. If it is forbidden to stay outside, the animals are not allowed to join the shelters, their owners have to leave them outside.

We used to think that very few of them survived the attacks.

Delighted guests

Although few in number, the visitors who attended that day showed great interest in the exhibition. Edwige and Isabelle, both from Bison, now have a view of conflicts under another prism. “It is very well explained and very educational. Fortunately, our friends the animals are there, and this exhibition gives them back the place they deserve. We just want it to last a little or to be transferred afterwards to other cultural areas in Besançon”.

Tuesday November 15, 2022 at 6:30 pm, Marie-Thérèse Michel will give a conference in the exhibition area to discuss the place of animals in conflicts. Admission to this exhibition is free. It will continue until November 19.

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