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Purrfect pals and pets for soldiers

11 min read

Crimean Tom, 1856

Crimean Tom

Tom was a Russian tabby cat, who was adopted by soldiers during the Crimean War (1854-56) and brought back home to England.

According to legend, when British forces entered the besieged port of Sevastapol in 1855, they found its inhabitants dying of starvation. But its population of stray cats appeared unusually healthy, having survived the siege on a diet of mice, rats and hidden food.

Some accounts say that Tom helped the British to uncover a hidden Russian food store, saving many from malnutrition. However, it's more likely that he was simply taken as a pet. He is reported to have died on 31 December 1856, shortly after his arrival in England.

The stuffed Tom was bought at Portobello Road market by Lady Compton Mackenzie in the 1950s. He became a favourite pet of the National Army Museum shortly after.

Although we can't be certain that he's the real Crimean Tom, we do know that his original owner thought highly of him. In 19th-century England, taxidermy was a common way of memorialising a beloved pet after its death.

Corporal Robin Ardis and Diesel the search dog in Afghanistan, 2007

Diesel

Diesel was an Explosives Search Dog. He served in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2013 with his handler Corporal Robin Ardis of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps.

One of the dangers of the war in Afghanistan (2001-14) was the extensive use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by enemy insurgents. IEDs were made from everyday objects and contained very little metal. Detection dogs, like Diesel, helped locate these hidden threats that were otherwise very hard to find.

Diesel and Robin Ardis celebrate Christmas in Afghanistan, 2008.

Diesel and Ardis celebrate Christmas, Afghanistan, 2008

Diesel’s medical harness worn in Afghanistan, 2007

For soldiers in Afghanistan, having dogs in camp and on operations was important for morale. They provided a degree of familiarity for troops missing the sights and sounds of home.

But life on campaign was tough for Diesel, too. He didn't like the heat and even had to endure being dressed up in Christmas tinsel and antlers for the entertainment of his family back home!

In 2013, Diesel and Ardis were hit by the blast from a suicide bomber. Diesel lost his hearing, but recovered enough to stay in the Army.

The Duke of Wellington as an old man surveying the battlefield of Waterloo with Copenhagen, 1840

Copenhagen

Copenhagen was a failed racehorse, who was shipped off to Spain during the Peninsular War (1808-14). Fortunately for him, he was purchased there by General Sir Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, and quickly became his favourite horse.

Copenhagen carried Wellington into battle on many occasions. At the Battle of Waterloo (1815), the Duke is said to have ridden his chestnut stallion for 17 hours.

After the Napoleonic Wars (1804-15), Copenhagen became famous as Wellington’s mount in parades and ceremonies. His hair was even turned into jewellery.

He retired to Wellington’s estate at Stratfield Saye in Hampshire, where he was buried after his death in 1836.

‘There may have been many faster horses, no doubt many handsomer, but for bottom and endurance I never saw his fellow.’

The Duke of Wellington on Copenhagen

Bab and Jumbo with members of the 1st/8th Gurkha Rifles, 1911

Bab and Jumbo

Bab and Jumbo served as war dogs with 1st Battalion, 8th Gurkha Rifles. In 1911, they took part in the Abor Expedition (1911-12) against rebels who had killed British officials on the Indian North-East Frontier.

During a patrol, the dogs' barking alerted troops to the enemy's presence. To recognise their service, the wife of one of the officers awarded Bab and Jumbo with replica campaign medals.

The Army used war dogs in various capacities. They could be trained to carry messages and medical supplies, to keep watch in camp or to detect mines and seek out casualties. They were often strays, recruited from places like Battersea Dogs Home.

Bab’s replica India General Service Medal 1908-35, 1911

The Dickin Medal, commonly known as the Victoria Cross for animals, was established in 1943 by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA). It recognises outstanding acts of gallantry by animals serving in military or civil defence roles. As of 2022, it has been awarded 74 times.

Tortoise snuff box belonging to Joseph Brabazon Pilkington

Tortoise snuff box belonging to Lieutenant Joseph Pilkington, c1869

Pilkington's tortoise

Lieutenant Joseph Pilkington presented this tortoise-shell snuff box to the officers of his regiment, the 94th Foot, on his retirement from the Army in 1869.

During the 19th century, it was not uncommon for the remains of an Army pet or mascot to be turned into a decorative regimental ornament. Although it may seem morbid today, it was considered a sentimental way of remembering a cherished friend, similar to the case of Crimean Tom.

It's unclear whether Pilkington's tortoise was a mascot, or perhaps a pet that he had found during his service in India. We don't know even know if it had a name. But there are certainly instances where soldiers have adopted local tortoises as low-maintenance companions.

Biddy and Lieutenant Stanley Edwardes, 1895

Biddy

Biddy was a fox terrier owned by Lieutenant Stanley Edwardes of the 2nd (Prince of Wales's Own) Bombay Infantry. In 1895, he and his master were part of a force sent to raise the Siege of Chitral on India's North-West Frontier.

During an attack by local tribesmen, Edwardes was captured and Biddy was shot in the chest. Remarkably, Biddy survived and Edwardes managed to persuade his captors to allow him to take his wounded dog with him.

Biddy's collar, 1895

After six weeks, Biddy and Edwardes were rescued, along with the 350 Indian troops at Chitral. Edwardes was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Biddy had to be content with a lesser distinction, the India Medal 1895-1902.

Terriers and other hunting dogs were very popular pets for Indian Army officers. These gentlemen liked to indulge in shooting, fishing and hunting in their spare time, and were often accompanied by their faithful hounds.

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