It’s the 1916 Battle of Verdun in France during the third year of the seemingly interminable World War One. A detachment of French troops are surrounded by Germans. They’ve been instructed to hold their position at all costs. But the overwhelming strength of the German force makes that seem an impossible task. Who might come to their aid? Incredibly, the answer was to be a messenger dog called Satan.
In fact, it isn’t quite as surprising as it might seem that an animal should play a part in the outcome of a battle. Animals been used in warfare throughout history in a variety of roles. Fighters in horse-drawn chariots have been seen in Central Asia since before the Iron Age. Dogs were used in warfare by the ancient Persians, Egyptians, Romans and others. And a range of animals had their parts to play in World War One.
The First World War saw species as diverse as canaries and camels pressed into service. The former were utilized to warn soldiers of the presence of toxic gas, while camels were used as transport animals, as were mules, donkeys and horses. In fact, some 16 million animals were involved in World War One.
And dogs were given a number of different tasks during the 1914-1918 conflict. The British alone had some 20,000 dogs in service. The important role that those animals could play in the war was recognized in 1917 with the establishment of the War Dog School of Instruction in England.
Some dogs were trained to act as sentries. In a 2013 article, the BBC quoted a 1916 report from the Scottish Dundee Evening Telegraph, “A watchdog never barks; at the most he will use a low growl to indicate the presence or approach of a hostile force. More often than not the mere pricking of the ears or the attitude of expectancy is sufficient to put his master on his guard.”
In the trenches, terriers were often used to hunt the rats that plagued frontline soldiers. Casualty dogs, meanwhile, were tasked with locating injured troops lost in no-man’s land and providing the wounded soldiers with medical supplies. Scout dogs were employed to locate enemy positions. As silence was essential, they were trained to indicate a find by a signal such as tail-wagging rather than barking.
But our dog, Satan, had his own specialism – messenger dog. In the chaos of trench warfare, field telephones and telegraphs were often destroyed by shelling and soldiers had to rely upon on animals for communication. Two creatures were able to perform this role reliably – the dog and the pigeon.
The birds used were of course homing pigeons, and pigeon lofts would be moved up to the front lines as needed. In the Battle of Verdun one notable French pigeon, Cher Ami, was awarded the Croix de Guerre, a decoration more commonly won by humans. She delivered more than ten messages during the battle, the last one while wounded. And that final message was credited with saving the lives of almost 200 American troops.
The BBC quoted a 1918 report from another Scottish newspaper, the Aberdeen Evening Express. Lieutenant Colonel Richardson, the commanding officer of the War Dog School of Instruction, said, “The skill, courage and tenacity of these dogs has been amazing. During heavy barrages, when all other communications have been cut, the messenger dogs have made their way, and in many cases have brought messages of vital importance.”
The 1916 conflict at Verdun that Satan was involved in was one of the most bitterly fought in the First World War. Of all the huge battles waged along Europe’s Western Front between French and German forces, the Battle of the Verdun lasted the longest, from February to December 1916. The campaign in the north-east of France centered on heavily fortified French positions around the city of Verdun.
The German plan was to take the strategically important Meuse Heights overlooking the city in a rapid attack. But although there was some early success for the German forces, what was supposed to be a speedy assault was soon bogged down and developed into month after grinding month of attritional warfare.
The fighting continued through the summer of 1916, with first the Germans and then the French alternately gaining ground only to lose it. One village, Fleury-devant-Douaumont, was taken and re-taken by the opposing armies no less than 16 times during a period of just two months.
One group of French soldiers found themselves surrounded in a small town near Verdun. The Germans were bearing down hard upon them with artillery, and it looked like the French might be overrun at any moment. The besieged men urgently needed to get a message to headquarters asking for reinforcements and supplies.
But there was no way to get a message out from their beleaguered position. The telegraph and phone lines had been destroyed, and there weren’t any homing pigeons available. No less than seven brave men had set out on the perilous journey to headquarters, but each of them had been killed by deadly German fire.
The French soldiers were at a low ebb, short of food and running out of ammunition, when a strange apparition appeared. It was a bizarre-looking creature fitted with a gas mask and carrying two boxes on its back. The animal seemed to be flying through the air, in fact, with German bullets whizzing all around it.
Then, one of the Frenchmen in the trenches recognized the strange beast for what it was. Satan! The dog’s handler, whose name we know only as Duvalle, knew his own dog when he saw it. In fact, Duvalle had trained two dogs. Satan was a Greyhound-collie cross, and Rip had been an Irish Setter. But the latter had been killed soon after entering service, while Satan had survived.
As Satan sped towards the French lines, he was at first able to use low bushes as cover. But then he was compelled to cross open ground and came under a hail of fire from the Germans. A shot hit Satan in the leg – he faltered but regained his footing and continued. Now a second bullet found its mark, shattering one of the dog’s forelegs.
Duvalle leapt from the safety of his trench and, according to a 2016 report in the Daily Mirror, hollered out to his faithful hound, “Satan. Have courage my friend. For France!” Duvalle was felled by German bullets almost as soon as the words left his lips, however. But his encouragement had revived Satan, who now reached the French position, stumbling along on three legs.
The message Satan brought was that the French would be relieved by reinforcements the next day. But even more importantly, the two boxes on Satan’s back each contained a messenger pigeon. The soldiers were able to write down the precise co-ordinates of the German position so that French artillery could destroy it. Both pigeons were released. One was killed, but the other made it to headquarters. The resulting barrage annihilated the Germans – and saved the French soldiers.
Here we have just one example of the incredible bravery displayed by so many animals who served during World War One and other conflicts throughout history. As to Satan’s fate, that remains unclear. Some reports state that the courageous dog succumbed to his wounds. Others record that he recovered to enjoy a well-deserved retirement. We can only hope it was the latter.