I’ve read and reviewed a fair few dog related books in my time, with the non-fiction genre which focuses quite specifically upon service and military dogs being a particular favourite of mine. I’m dog obsessed, and although its often an emotional reading experience I still love delving into real tales of dog heroics and the sheer amazing talents and heart that dogs have. They’re such faithful and courageous creatures, and I feel that books such as this really go a long way to highlighting their importance in our lives.
My mum actually bought me one such book for Christmas last year, and fancying something a bit different to the usual fiction I’ve been reading, I decided to pick this one up. Written by Clare Campbell, Dogs of Courage: When Britain’s Pets Went to War 1939-45, does exactly what the title suggests. Throughout this book we learn not only what different dogs did in the war, but how they actually become involved in it in the first place, documenting the vast difficulties and obstacles they had to overcome along the way. This is not just a book describing the heroics of dogs picked up along the way of the war, but the untold story of the multitude of family pets which were sent to do their bit for the war effort too.
Right from the start I loved how factual and confident this book was. The author has clearly done an incredible amount of research and investigation to piece together this amazing narrative of our most beloved pets. We get the hefty dates and figures of this war time reality, which I’m sure was a real labour of love for the author. Likewise, the book is saturated throughout with different types of media to further convey and authenticate this book, including extracts from war time magazine and books, as well as the use of the epistolary form, diary entries and direct quotes. This array of knowledge is further complimented by the linear narrative which the book follows, moving us along side by side with the advancement of the war. As the political environment changes and war becomes ever more of a threat, we see the effect this has upon the use of dogs in the war effort alongside the changes in peoples attitudes.
The thing which really surprised me about this book and what makes it’s contents so original is the extremely honest and quite often brutal look it takes throughout. Yes we have heroics and stories of love and survival in the face of adversity, but the author shines a glaring light into this dark hypocrisy which is actually part of our history in relation to canines. The government was more than happy to take on hundreds of stray dogs and family pets in their efforts to train them and use them to their advantage. When the war was over, however, and the dogs had done their part, the sheer amount of animals which were then destroyed, either because they had no homes left or relocating them was too difficult, is shocking!
At the outbreak of war people were told that if they could not ‘send your pets to the country in advance of an emergency, it really is kindest to have them destroyed.’ Indeed, ‘the pet welfare charities had already declared themselves ready to carry out mass euthanasia.’ (p. 11). It horrific to image such mass killings now, especially considering the dramatic hypocrisy when the government later realised they could use these animals and called upon the nation to give up their beloved pets to serve in the war. Shockingly, ‘by the end of the first week of war, 750,000 animals, mostly in the capital, had lost their lives, their bodies piling up . . . (p. 11). Similarly, dogs which had been given up by owners yet were deemed not suitable in training did not always go back to their previous lives, often being humanely destroyed through not fault of their own.
We often read in non-fiction books of this kind about strays who became mascots, often picked up along the way of the war. What I didn’t realise was just how many of the dogs who were purposefully selected to serve in the war were actually stray dogs to begin with or were loaned by their owners for the war effort. The author examines this reality brilliantly, examining the reasons why someone would decide to part with their family pet without truly knowing if they would ever make it back. The list is vast, with everything from the low food rations and worry about how to feed them, to the lack of men able to look after often boisterous animals, are all considered contributing factors.
What I especially liked about this book was how different it is to many others of its kind. This book does not focus specifically on the deeds of famous and heroic dogs, but more on the overarching background surrounding the very existence of dogs in the war and how they even entered it in the first place. Contrary to popular belief, the use of our canine friends was not an instant and immediately understandable thing. This was often the first time dogs had been trained to do particular jobs, and there was a lot of uncertainty regarding their accuracy and ability. In our modern world we rely very heavily on dogs for jobs such as drug and bomb detection, but here the book acknowledges that this was a very new idea met with much scepticism. There was no real precedent to follow and people did not know what would or would not work. Many things were actually deemed as a failure which we would now recognise as the initial signs of the amazing abilities which dogs would come to possesses and be trained to for.
As you can probably tell I really did thoroughly enjoy this absolutely fantastic read! Although being a dogs lover would obviously seem a key component for the enjoyment of this book, the details and history within it are fascinating enough to sustain anyone’s interest. Likewise, if you are after a broader read with more background knowledge into how dogs were actually first entered into the war than this is the read for you!
This is a superbly balanced book; the author cuts through the glamour and the heroics surrounding dogs in the war to give us a truly shocking yet honest read, all the while maintaining the emotion which allows these animals to take such a firm place in our hearts.