I must thank my friend Rosie Wood for mentioning the possible role of cats in warfare. I can’t remember how the subject came up now, but my research produced some interesting results.
It transpires that they were employed as far back as the reign of Cambyses II, king of Persia. I suggest skipping the next few paragraphs if you are a cat lover.
Sad to say, the cats were made savage by ill-treatment then hurled over the walls of a city by invaders. The story goes that it was enough to make the terrified inhabitants throw open the gates.
In the 16th century cats were sent into battle with miniature ‘canons’ strapped to their backs. The canons were filled with unpleasant vapours, released by an early form of detonator.
During the siege of Paris in 1870 …….oh dear this is truly awful, cats became an alternative to jugged hare and helped save the city from famine.
OK, time for something more positive (I think), from WWI. The following was reported in 1919;
The story of British cats did their bit towards saving the world whilst serving in the trenches has been ‘released’ for general circulation, and is told in ‘Jon O’London’s Weekly’. The cats, which were gathered from the highways and by-ways of London, were used to detect gas in the trenches. They were obtained through an advertisement which appeared in the London papers asking for ‘common cats-any number’, to be delivered to Charles Harris’ bird store……But even Mr Harris did not know what the cats were wanted for.
It’s to be hoped they didn’t die from the gas, like canaries in coalmines. They were delivered up and down the British lines. As a sideline to their active military service the furry troops kept down the rat population and provided companionship to the men. I love this photo of a British soldier with a kitten, taken in 1918. Such a tender moment in terrible times.
Sometimes cats ‘changed side’ in the middle of battle. The Gympie Times raised morale in 1918 by publishing this piece;
A story of a cat is told in British letters from the front. The lookout men saw a cat emerge from the German trenches in front of them, make her way calmly to their trenches, pass through, and proceed to the rear, where she carefully inspected the officers’ billets. Then she retraced her steps to the German lines and the Englishmen supposed they had seen the last of her. To their amazement she re-appeared with a kitten in her mouth, passed by them to the zone of comparative safety in the rear, dropped her kitten in the dugout, went back to the German trenches and got kitten number two. Finally she had three kittens safe in the English lines. Speculation as to the reason for her removal of the kittens was in vain. She never told why she deserted the Germans.
Here is a story reported in The Newcastle Herald & Miners’ Advocate about a cat who lived with the ANZACS at Gallipoli;
‘Again, when we were in the trenches in the front line a cat came up from the support trench and wandered in and out amongst us, and the most extraordinary thing was that during the day she only wandered about below the parapet- it would have been fatal for her to have appeared above it, just as it was with us….Well, directly it got dark and we were able to look over and fire, she would make no bones about running along the very top.’
Cats received their rations along with soldiers during WWI, and were well earned;
The Ministry of Food in the UK even some provided cats with ration books in WWII. The privileged felines were those who were kept in warehouses to protect vital food stocks from vermin. They were allocated milk powder deemed unfit for human consumption.
Of course cats have always had their place on board ships, and it was no different in wartime. This fellow had his own little hammock on HMAS Kanimbla.
The nurses were served overseas adopted cats as mascots too. Pictured below is a British nurse during WWII.
RIP all those cats who provided comfort and affection in so many theatres of war. I’m sure they are continuing to do so to this day.