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Humans have enlisted animals to help fight their wars since prehistoric times, and some of the world’s earliest historical sources tell of battles between ancient warlords in horse-drawn chariots. Dogs and horses were probably the first animals used in war, and many are still used today in modern military and police tasks.
But, an even wider range of creatures have been used to fight human battles throughout history. Here we count down some of the unwitting animals that have been recruited to fight in both ancient and modern warfare.
PigeonsSlide 2 of 31
Pigeons have been used to carry messages since at least the 6th century B.C., when the Persian king Cyrus is said to have used pigeons to communicate with the distant parts of his empire. Like many species of birds, pigeons have an innate homing ability that is thought to be based on their sensitivity to the direction of the Earth's magnetic field. Some specially bred homing pigeons have found their way home from more than 1,800 miles (2,900 km) away.
Because of this ability, pigeons have been used to carry messages for conquerors and generals throughout much of human history. But, their homing superpower only works one way: usually the birds need to be transported to where they will be used, to fly back home with a message.
During the four-month Siege of Paris by Prussian forces in 1870 and 1871, Parisians trapped inside the city used messenger pigeons to communicate with their compatriots outside. The French military used hot air balloons to send hundreds of caged homing pigeons over the enemy lines, where they could be collected and used to send microfilm messages back into the city. The use of messenger pigeons reached its peak in World War I, just before the widespread adoption of radio, when more than 200,000 messenger pigeons were used by Allied forces alone.
One of the most famous wartime pigeons, named Cher Ami, earned the French "Croix de Guerre" for delivering 12 messages between forts in the Verdun region of northern France. The plucky bird made his last message delivery despite having suffered serious bullet injuries, and is credited with saving the "Lost Battalion" of the U.S. 77th Infantry Division, which had become cut off by German forces.
Another group of 32 pigeons earned the British Dickin medal for animal valor during the D-Day invasion of World War II, when Allied soldiers kept radio silence and relied on the pigeons to relay messages.Slide 3 of 31
BearsSlide 4 of 31
Bears appear a few times in the history of warfare, but one bear in particular became famous for his exploits against the Germans during World War II.
Voytek was a Syrian brown bear cub adopted by troops from a Polish supply company who purchased him while they were stationed in Iran. The bear grew up drinking condensed milk from a vodka bottle and drinking beer. When the Polish troops were moved around as the war progressed, Voytek went too: to battle zones in Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and then Italy.
Soon, Voytek had grown to weigh more than 880 pounds (400 kg) and stood more than 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall. In time, he was enlisted as a private soldier in the supply company, with his own paybook, rank and serial number, and eventually rose to the rank of corporal in the Polish Army. In 1944, Voytek was sent with his unit to Monte Casino in Italy, during one of bloodiest series of battles of World War II, where he helped carry crates of ammunition.
In his later years, Voytek lived at the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, where he’d been stationed with his adopted supply company at the end of the war. He became a popular public figure in the United Kingdom, and often appeared on children’s television shows until his death in 1963.Slide 5 of 31
ElephantsSlide 6 of 31
Elephants, the largest land mammals on Earth, made their mark in ancient warfare as creatures capable of devastating packed formations of enemy troops. Elephants could trample enemy soldiers, gore them with their tusks and even throw them with their trunks. They were often armored against enemy weapons, or had their tusks tipped with iron spikes. Some even carried a raised fighting platform on their backs for archers and javelin throwers.
Elephants were first used in war in India around the 4th century B.C., many centuries after wild Asian elephants first began to be tamed there around 4500 B.C. Elephants breed slowly and the captive herds were small, so wild males were usually caught and trained to be war elephants. In 331 B.C., the invading armies of Alexander the Great encountered the war elephants of the Persian Empire for the first time at the Battle of Gaugamela. The elephants terrified Alexander’s soldiers, but that didn’t stop them from winning the battle, and soon Alexander added all of Persia's war elephants to his own forces.
In 280 B.C., the king Pyrrhus of Epirus borrowed more than 20 African war elephants from the Egyptian king Ptolemy II, to attack the armies of the Roman Republic at the Battle of Heraclea in southern Italy. The elephants helped to rout the Romans, but by the time of the battle of Asculum the next year, the Romans had developed anti-elephant wagons covered in iron spikes and troopers were specially trained to attack the elephants with javelins. Pyrrhus also won that battle against Rome, but with huge losses among his troops, giving rise to the term "a Phyrric victory." The Romans also faced elephants in the Punic wars against Carthage, and in the Second Punic War (201-218 B.C.), the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca led war elephants over the Alps to attack Italy from the north. Many animals died during the crossing.
Later, the Romans used war elephants themselves in their conquests in Spain and Gaul, where they were known for their terrifying psychological effect on undisciplined "barbarians." War elephants were also used in the Roman invasion of Britain under the Emperor Claudius in 43 A.D. Ultimately, elephants proved unsuited to war — they were too vulnerable to massed weapons, and too likely to panic: the terrified giant beasts often caused as much damage to their own forces as they did to the enemy.
Elephants continued to be used as war animals in Asia and India until recent centuries, and some animals continue today in ceremonial military roles, but the emerging use of cannons eventually ended their role in combat.Slide 7 of 31
CamelsSlide 8 of 31