Animals

Purrfect pals and pets for soldiers

Crimean Tom, 1856

Crimean Tom

Tom was a Russian tabby cat, adopted during the Crimean War (1853-56) and brought back home to England with a soldier.

Many of the stories about Crimean Tom are probably heavily embellished. Legend has it that when British forces entered the port of Sevastapol in 1855, after a year-long siege, they found its inhabitants dying of starvation. But the city's stray cats looked unusually healthy, having survived the siege on a diet of mice, rats and hidden food. 

Some accounts even say Tom helped British soldiers to uncover a Russian food store, saving many from starvation!

It is probably more likely that Tom was just a much loved pet who belonged to the British troops in Sevastopol, and when the campaign was over, his owner brought him back to England with him.

The myth says Tom died on 31 December 1856, soon after his arrival in England. We can't tell whether this cat is the real Crimean Tom. But its owner was obviously fond enough of him to have him stuffed and mounted after his death, which was a common Victorian way of remembering a beloved animal.

This stuffed cat was bought at Portobello Road market by Lady Compton Mackenzie in the 1950s. He became the National Army Museum's favourite pet soon after.

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. This made it very hard to find them using traditional methods. Detection dogs, like Diesel, helped locate these hidden threats.

Diesel’s medical harness worn in Afghanistan, 2007

Corporal Ardis adapted this harness so that Diesel could carry his own medical supplies. The full dog's medical kit included morphine, bandages and a tourniquet designed to fit smaller canine limbs.

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

But it was also tough for Diesel. He didn't like the heat and had to suffer 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 British Army.

Diesel and Robin Ardis celebrate Christmas in Afghanistan, 2008.

Diesel and Ardis celebrate Christmas, Afghanistan, 2008

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.

‘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

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 (1803-1815), 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.

Horse heroes

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

Bab and Jumbo

Bab and Jumbo were war dogs with 1st Battalion 8th Gurkha Rifles.

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. 

The PDSA Dickin Medal, commonly known as the animals Victoria Cross, was established in 1943 by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. It recognises outstanding acts of gallantry by animals serving in military or civil defence roles. As of 2016, it has been awarded 68 times. 

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

Gurkha regiments often saw action against rebellious tribes on the North East Frontier of India. In 1911, the 1st Battalion took part in the Abor Expedition (1911-12) to punish rebels who had massacred British officials.

During a patrol, Bab and Jumbo's barking alerted troops that the enemy were nearby. The wife of one of their officers awarded the dogs with replica campaign medals for their courage.

Tortoise snuff box belonging to Joseph Brabazon Pilkington

Tortoise snuff box belonging to Lieutenant Joseph Pilkington, c1869

'Snuffy'

This tortoise, now a decorative snuff box, belonged to Lieutenant Joseph Pilkington. We don't know its real name, but it was presented to the 94th Regiment, Pilkington's unit, on his retirement from the Army in 1869.

It's possible that Pilkington found the tortoise during his service in India between 1859 and 1866. There are similar cases where soldiers have adopted local tortoises as low-maintenance companions.

The only living veteran of the First World War (1914-1918) is Blake, a tortoise picked up during the Gallipoli campaign (1915) and kept in a British soldier's kit bag.

In 2012, American soldiers in Afghanistan adopted 'Terry the Terrorist Turtle'. They found him wandering the desert during their mission to search for insurgent bomb-making materials.

Florence Nightingale had a pet tortoise at her hospital in Scutari during the Crimean War. His name was Jimmy.

Turning a beloved pet into a decorative ornament after its death was quite common in the 19th century. Although it may seem morbid to us today, it was considered a sentimental way of remembering them.

However, in the case of 'Snuffy', he may simply have been a souvenir exotic animal that Pilkington found while stationed abroad!

Biddy and Lieutenant Stanley Edwardes, 1895

Biddy

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

Edwardes and his column were attacked by local tribesmen. During the fighting, Biddy was shot in the chest and Edwardes captured by the enemy.

Remarkably, Biddy survived. Edwardes then persuaded his captors to allow him to take his wounded dog with him when they were handed over to the force besieging Chitral. 

Biddy's collar, 1895

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

Terriers and other hunting dogs were very popular pets with Indian Army officers. English gentlemen were expected to indulge in shooting, fishing and hunting in their spare time. Their faithful hounds always accompanied them on these trips.

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