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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Unsung Heroes

I have seen the bloated bodies of the dead following a battle and it is something I will never forget, but if asked what is the most pitiful sight that I have ever experienced, it was that of a horse dying. I witnessed this on a highway north of the town of Rehovot. It was a carthorse and it had been struck by a car as it came out of a side street onto the main road. It was still attached to the shattered cart. The blow had been quite a serious one and it was clear that the horse would very shortly die or would be put down. It was in the middle of the road, on its haunches, but its neck and head were raised, and blood was coming from its mouth. As we drove by it looked directly at me and even followed me with its large, sorrowful brown eyes. I cannot recall having ever seen such a profound expression of sadness.

When we think about the crusades, we naturally think about the men who were risking their lives for belief or gain. They faced tremendous hardships and danger. But they were there, by and large, by choice. Not so the horses and pack animals, the unsung heroes and often tragic participants in battle. They were following no beliefs or ideals and they had no expectations. And this makes their participation and the accompanying suffering and slaughter that many of them experienced, all the more pitiful.

Vast numbers of horses were killed in battle and many were killed to be eaten by starving soldiers, particularly during the First Crusade on the march to Jerusalem, but there are no means of estimating their numbers. During the First World War which was a largely static war, and which, to the extent that it did move was becoming increasingly mechanised, but was still a war in which the horse played a major role, an estimated eight million horses died on all sides (the number of soldiers who died is believed to be about 9-11 million). As the total number of horses was about 10 million the odds of surviving battle were very slim.

Appreciation of the roles that animals played in human wars is sporadic. The famous donkey Duffy (actually five donkeys, variously named Duffy No. 1, Duffy No. 2, Murphy, Queen Elizabeth and Abdul), that with its master, stretcher bearer John Simpson Kirkpatrick, saved numerous lives at Gallipoli, was honoured in stories, a song, a medal, a statue that I well remember, and even a silent movie that was released as early as 1916. But it took a century to honour a war horse named Warrior who had served in the First World War. Warrior was posthumously awarded the Honorary Dickin Medal, the highest award given to animals serving in the military (to date, 29 dogs, 32 messenger pigeons, four horses and one cat have received the honour). Warrior served throughout the war on the Western Front coming under the machine gun attacks and shelling. He was injured a number of times, was dug out of the mud at Passchendaele, survived the Battle of the Somme and on two occasions was trapped under burning beams after his stables were shelled.

We generally forget the often tragic fate of animals in war, but contemporary writers occasionally took note. One chronicler of the First Crusade, Albert of Aachen, described the suffering of horses and other animals on the same terms as that of the crusaders:

"...overwhelmed by the anguish of thirst, as many as five hundred people died. In addition, horses, donkeys, camels, mules, oxen and many animals suffered the same death from very painful thirst."*

And there was not only sorrow over the loss of their own animals. Writing of the capture of Antioch in 1098, Raymond of Aguilers, while delighting at the deaths of Muslim warriors who were driven off a cliff, bemoaned the loss of the horses they were riding that fell with them to their deaths:

"Our joy over the fallen enemy was great, but we grieved over the more than thirty horses who had their necks broken there."**

* Albert of Aachen, Historia Hierosolymitana III. 1-2, trans. Susan B. Edgington, Albert of Aachen's History of the Journey to Jerusalem, Farnham and Burlington, 2013, p. 79.

** Raymond of Aguilers, Liber, eds. J.H. Hill and L.L. Hill, p. 65, trans. A.C. Krey, The First Crusade, Princeton and Gloucester, 1921, pp. 154-55.

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