≡ Menu

COSTS OF WAR: ANIMAL ABUSE

In the US the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) obtained some footage of a military training exercise in 2012, where live goats that had been anesthetised were having their legs cut off with heavy-duty tree branch loppers, so that medics could learn how to deal with serious medical injuries:

In Britain it is claimed that we are a nation of animal lovers and some Regiments in the British Army have a tradition of adopting a certain animal as their military mascot – to act as a symbol for the unit and take part in its ceremonies. Also, on special occasions, the Household Cavalry will parade their well-bred horses before admiring crowds in London. These are examples of what has become the acceptable military use of animals.

There is, however, another side to the MoD’s interaction with animals that the British people and tourists do not see. Earlier this year, in April 2019, the ‘Daily Mirror’ newspaper published the following exclusive article about the abuse of animals during military tests, which were a part of the MoD’s weapons research programme at the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down:

‘Almost 50,000 animals have been killed in military testing at a top-secret government research base, the Sunday Mirror can reveal. During a series of experiments, scientists blew up pigs, infected monkeys with biological weapons and poisoned guinea pigs with nerve gas. Figures seen by this newspaper show 48,400 animals were killed at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, Wiltshire, between 2010 and 2017.

Animal rights activists claim the tests are unnecessary and the numbers being killed are “alarming”. Guinea pigs were among the animals killed during a variety of barbaric tests.

Jessamy Korotoga, of Animal Aid, said: “Animals suffer and die in so many different types of experiments, but there is something especially dark and ­troubling about warfare experiments. “To deliberately expose live animals to compounds, simulated blasts and biological pathogens which are known, and indeed developed, to cause extreme suffering and death is morally unconscionable. “A civilised society, in the 21st century, should not be involved in such macabre and terrible practices.”

Our investigation found scientists shot, blew up, gassed and poisoned animals as part of the Ministry of Defence’s weapons research programme. In one experiment, guinea pigs had a nerve agent called VX applied to their backs to see how another chemical, known as bioscavenger, would alter the effects. The rodents were observed after being poisoned and given a score for their symptoms, which included “gasping” and “writhing”.  Animals not already dead at the end of the test were killed and dissected.

The Army has also taken part in “live tissue” experiments in Denmark involving pigs. The beasts were shot in different parts of the body with rifles. Army medics then fought to keep them alive. The MoD defends the practice, claiming it provides doctors with vital training, which has helped save the lives of British troops injured in battle.

Pigs were also killed in explosive tests at Porton Down as part of a research programme to develop more effective body armour for troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The animals were wrapped in body armour material before being seriously injured or killed by explosives. Scientists then studied the animals to assess which parts had been damaged or protected.

In further tests monkeys were injected with “biological weapons” like anthrax, while researchers recorded their pain levels and how long they took to die.Others were forced to breathe mustard gas, which burns the lungs and causes severe blistering …

An MoD spokesman said of our findings: “DSTL is responsible for developing and creating indispensable technology to protect the UK and its armed forces.“This could not, currently, be achieved without the use of animals in research. DSTL is committed to reducing the number of animal experiments”.’

[Daily Mirror, 27th April 2019, by Sean Rayment].

Besides these obscene experiments, animals have always been among the victims of wars, even if this often remains hidden. When we see bombed cities, napalmed hamlets, Agent Orange destroyed jungle and land strewn with landmines, we rightly mourn the human victims – even if the military refer to them as ‘collateral damage’. But how many wild animals, domestic pets, flocks of sheep, herds of cattle etc. are lost and wounded by such actions? No one knows, because animal victims are hardly ever mentioned.

Horses & Conflict

In Britain the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 had prohibited: ‘Fighting or baiting Lions, Bears, Badgers, Cocks, Dogs or other Animals.’ Three decades later, in ‘The Descent of Man’, Charles Darwin had stated that: ‘There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties’. Darwin’s work on evolution helped to change the way many humans viewed their relationship with animals and a more enlightened view started to emerge.

Some people, however, still call animals: ‘Dumb’, but it is human beings who create wars, including our modern ones. Animals do not brandish rifles, or don suicide-vests; nor do they drive tanks, or pilot warplanes, or drones. Their only involvement in conflict is after they have been co-opted and trained into specific roles by humans.

The creature most associated with combat is the horse, either for mounted fighting, or as a pack animal. Early use of ‘noble horses’ in warfare saw them pulling chariots, or carrying lightly armoured horsemen. Later, the knight and his powerful warhorse, both heavily armoured, dominated the wars in Europe for centuries.

Gradually, most armies developed cavalry units and the mounted charge often became the centrepiece of a battle. The coming of mechanization and modern weapons as we entered the 20th century pointed to the ending of horses in warfare. Britain, however, used cavalry charges throughout WW1, even after it had become evident that machine-guns would wipe out any mounted attack.

During one period of the ‘Great War’ as many as 1,000 horses per day were arriving at the front as replacements to make up for the animals lost in the British Sector. The Army Veterinary Corps (AVC) treated over 725,000 horses during the war and over two-thirds were returned to duty. During the Battle of Verdun, in March 1916, German and French units lost 7,000 horses in one day due to the intense shelling from both sides.

After the major battles in WW1 the ground was saturated with the blood, flesh and bones of the causalities, but along with the human dead and wounded there were often large numbers of horses too. While over 9 million soldiers died in the ‘Great War’, 8 million horses died also, some in cavalry units charging towards enemy defensive lines protected by machine-guns and barbed wire. Other horses, living in the mud and exposed to shellfire and mayhem, perished from diseases, or from wounds, exhaustion and terror.

Gas masks were developed first for the soldiers and then for the animals, but, after fitment, horses often confused them with feedbags. Symptoms of shell shock were detected among some horses at the front and they were treated for this condition at the AVC’s hospitals. Horses were considered to be so valuable that if a soldier’s mount, or workhorse, was killed, or died, one of its hoofs was ordered to be cut off and brought back to the commanding officer – to prove that the two had not just been separated.

While it is true that the horses were trained for their role, many were left traumatized and bewildered on the battlefield, as humans exerted extreme and inane acts of violence against each other. During WW1 there were pictures of wounded soldiers and sometimes indications of how they were affected by the warfare. Often, this was censored, but images of maimed and distressed horses were totally missing; to let a ‘nation of animal lovers’ see what was happening to their ‘noble horses’ on the battlefield could have caused war weariness and opposition to grow.

Various animals were used for the conflict in WW1, with dogs, pigeons, canaries, camels, horses, mules, oxen and elephants being trained and then harnessed to carry out certain tasks:

Hanging on the Butcher’s Hook

Some of the recruitment posters for WW1 attempted to manipulate the natural affection between man and horse to entice recruits. But the horses, unlike their riders, or handlers, had no say about taking part in the conflict. They also had no concept of war and lacked any means of understanding it.

During WW1 the transport costs were considerably more for horses than for men, due to the space required and the cost of fodder. Britain’s need of horses was so great, however, that as well as requisitioning them from UK civilians, the military also imported them from the US, Canada, Australia and Argentina. In its quest to keep up the supply of horses needed, the British Remount Department became a major international business, spending £67.5 million (equal to £6700 million today) in its task to purchase ‘noble horses’ for the war.

The Australia and New Zealand Mounted Division fought in the Middle East during WW1, helping to drive the Ottoman forces into retreat from Egypt back to Turkey. The Australians mainly used hardy Waler horses, which were a cross between workhorses and thoroughbreds. Over 130,000 Australian horses, mostly Walers, were shipped out to take part in the war.

When the ‘Great War’ ended only one Waler horse was ever returned to Australia. The costs of transporting the rest of the horses – that had always been found to carry the animals to war – was now: ‘Too costly’ to take them home (well, there was no profit in transporting them now, was there?) So, the surviving horses were just sold off to locals to be worked to death, or butchered for meat.

Many of the Australian veterans were heartbroken about having to leave their Walers to this fate and some took their horses out into the scrub, or desert, and shot them dead. A similar situation occurred with the horses from Britain that had travelled to the front in France. Some officers were granted the right to have their mounts transported home, but most of the horses were sold off – mostly to French butchers.

Humans have been fed lies and exploited as cannon fodder in wars since the history of organised combat started. Yet, as combatants, they mostly fight, either because they believe their ruler’s propaganda; or if not, because Homo sapiens at least have the capacity to adjust to their situation and come-to-terms with their predicament.

Conversely, animals, who have had their trusting nature exploited to take part in conflicts, can neither comprehend the human folly of war, nor rationalise their involvement in it. Conscripted and voiceless, they deserve to be regarded as fellow veterans and have better care taken of them, both during and after conflict. In WW1, however, very little concern was shown to any of the veterans at the front – animal or human.

The song, ‘Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire’, was composed by soldiers in the trenches. Designed to be sung whilst marching, it is one of many songs and poems showing the ordinary soldier’s dissent and disgust at the war, the inequalities within the army system and how the orders of the Politicians and Generals had left so many of their mates: ‘Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire’:

At the end of WW1, there were countless young men who had gone straight into the trenches and who knew no life save that of soldiers. Many were left traumatised and brutalised by their experiences. In London, shortly after the end of the ‘Great War’ on the anniversary of Armistice Day, 25,000 unemployed veterans marched past the Cenotaph in remembrance of the dead.

The veteran’s cry, written boldly on their banners, as they marched was: NEVER AGAIN! To protest about their own plight, many pinned pawn tickets beside their medals. One of the veterans, George Coppard, recalled:

‘Lloyd George and company had been full of big talk about making the country fit for heroes to live in, but it was just so much hot air. No practical steps were taken to rehabilitate the broad mass of de-mobbed men.’

As they marched, many of the disillusioned veterans remembered with a deep affection, not only their fallen comrades, but also those animals they had fought alongside throughout the war. Meanwhile, back in France, some of these fellow veterans were on display. They were some of Britain’s ‘noble horses’ that had also survived the war, but were now hanging on hooks in Butcher’s shops – as fresh meat for sale.


Information collated by Aly Renwick, a VFP member, who served in the British Army for 8 years in the 1960s.

  • David Collins 20/09/2019, 23:53

    Michael Morpurgo’s book “War Horse” does not even come close to the power of your devastating descriptions of both past and recent animal cruelty and exploitation in Britain’s forces and warfare establishments. Thank you for your work – it is vital to face reality.

  • David Marchesi 01/10/2019, 22:31

    Vast numbers of horses were killed in the Crimea “Charge of the Light Brigade” etc) and in the Boer Wars. As for the soldier’s inter-action with his horse, the “War Horse” points out that Germans and British troops included some, perhaps many, who were genuinely attached to their mount. As for the providers of horse “cannon fodder”, they made plenty of money from the Army.

Cancel reply

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.