The Victoria Cross for animals: The Dickin Medal

Article / November 9, 2018 / Project number: 18-0343

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By Jeff Pelletier, Army Public Affairs

Ottawa, Ontario — Throughout its history, the Canadian Army (CA) has relied on animals to take on various tasks, including communication, transportation and troop morale. No matter what job they did, thousands of dogs, pigeons, horses and other animals have played vital roles in the success of the CA.

The CA recognizes the significant contributions of thousands of animals, including many who died while serving Canada.

There are a number of ways military animal heroes are honoured. The Animals in War Dedication is a monument located in the heart of downtown Ottawa in Confederation Park. Visitors to the National Capital Region can go there to learn about the history of animals in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

Another way these animals are celebrated around the world is through the Dickin Medal. Often referred to as the “Victoria Cross for animals,” it is the highest honour that an animal can receive in military service.

The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) is a U.K.-based veterinary charity responsible for presenting the medal, which is named after the organization’s founder, Maria Dickin.

Since it was first awarded in 1943, the Dickin Medal has been awarded to more than 70 animals, including dogs, horses, pigeons and a cat.

The medal, which continues to be awarded today, is international in scope. While several animals from Canada have received the medal, the majority of the recipients served with other nations, such as the United Kingdom, France and the United States.

The medal’s ribbon is green, brown and blue, to represent naval, land and air forces. The front of the bronze medallion has “For Gallantry” and “We Also Serve” inscribed on it. On the back, it has the name of the animal recipient, its branch of service or unit, and the date and location of the act of bravery that earned them the award.

Four animals have earned a Dickin medal for their service to the Canadian Army.

Beachcomber, the pigeon at Dieppe (1942)

On March 6, 1944, a Canadian pigeon, designated as Pigeon NPS.41.NS.4230 but named Beachcomber by the troops, was awarded the Dickin Medal for delivering an important message from Canadians at Dieppe in 1942. Flying across the foggy English Channel through treacherous conditions all the way to Britain, Beachcomber delivered the news about the landing. He is one of several Second World War carrier pigeons to be recognized by the Dickin Medal, but the only one to do so while serving Canada.

Sergeant Gander, a Newfoundland dog, mascot of the Royal Rifles of Canada (1941)

Of all recipients, dogs have been awarded the most Dickin Medals. Man’s best friends have often been unlikely heroes, doing everything from providing morale to troops to searching for mines in battlefields.

In 1941, a Newfoundland dog named Sergeant Gander was serving as the mascot for the Royal Rifles of Canada. He was given to the regiment by a civilian family and was loved by his fellow troops. As noted in the official citation when the medal was presented, twice he stopped the enemy’s advance and protected wounded troops. On a third occasion when Canadians were under attack in Hong Kong, Sgt Gander picked up a grenade and ran with it, but, tragically, it detonated and he never made it back to his troops.

Sgt Gander’s sacrifice saved many Canadian lives in Hong Kong. He was awarded a posthumous Dickin Medal on October 27, 2000, becoming the first recipient of the medal since 1949.

He has also been honoured in many other ways.

The Gander Heritage Memorial Park in Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador, was named in his honour to remember his sacrifice along with the human members of the Royal Rifles of Canada. His name appears with the names of 1,975 Fallen on the Hong Kong Veterans Memorial Wall in Ottawa. A statue of Gander appears as part of the Cobequid Veterans Memorial Park in Bass River, Nova Scotia.

Sam, a German Shepherd, served with The Royal Canadian Regiment in Eastern Europe (1998)

A second dog won the Dickin Medal for service to Canada. Sam was a German Shepherd with the British Royal Army Veterinary Corps (RAVC) on assignment with The Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR). During the breakup of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991, the region was devastated by a series of conflicts. Canada and its United Nations and NATO allies went to the region to help create peace and stability.

While serving with the RCR in 1998, Sergeant Iain Carnegie, Sam’s RAVC handler, saw him perform two acts of bravery within only a few days of each other. On April 18, a gunman opened fire in the town of Drvar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. After locating the suspect, Sam charged at him and helped bring him to the ground, allowing Sgt Carnegie to retrieve a loaded firearm.

On April 24, Sam and Sgt Carnegie were called in to help protect a group of civilians who had taken refuge in a warehouse. Ethnic tensions were high in the region, so when rioters came toward the warehouse, the two had to create a barricade to protect the civilians. They stood their ground until reinforcements arrived, and none of the civilians were harmed.

Two years later, Sam passed away from natural causes at the age of 10. In 2002, Sgt Carnegie accepted a posthumous Dickin Medal on Sam’s behalf.

In the book The Animal Victoria Cross: The Dickin Medal by Peter Hawthorne, Sgt Carnegie is quoted as follows: “Sam displayed outstanding courage and not once did he shy away from danger. I could never have carried out my duties without Sam at my side. He deserves the best.”

In addition to Sgt Carnegie, a Canadian soldier, then-Corporal, now Major, Michael (Scott) Moody of The RCR’s 4th Battalion, RCR served as Sam’s handler for about two months during his deployment to Bosnia in 1997.

Warrior, a Thoroughbred horse ‘the Germans couldn’t kill’ (1914-18)

The most recent animal to earn the Dickin Medal for serving in harm’s way for Canada was a First World War-era Thoroughbred horse named Warrior.

Born on the Isle of Wight in 1908, Warrior belonged to British Major-General John Seely (a Lieutenant-Colonel at the time). Warrior’s first appearance on the Western Front was in August 1914, a few weeks after the war started.

In December, MGen Seely was named Commander of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade (CCB). The following February, Warrior went back to Britain to take part in training with the CCB, before returning to the Western Front.

Warrior’s military career was outstanding. He led the CCB in charges at several battles, including Ypres, the Somme and Passchendaele. In March 1918, he led the charge at the Battle of Moreuil Wood, a crucial action that helped make way for the final days of the war. Even after MGen Seely suffered injuries from a gas attack, Warrior stayed with the CCB under its new commander, Brigadier-General R.W. Paterson.

Warrior became known as “The horse the Germans couldn’t kill.”

Warrior survived the First World War. In December 1918, he was shipped back to the Isle of Wight where he was born. MGen Seely published a book about him in 1934, and rode him in 1938 to commemorate the date that their combined age was 100. In April of 1941, Warrior died at the age of 32.

The centennial of the beginning of the First World War led to several commemorations in his honour, including the unveiling of a bronze statue of MGen Seely riding Warrior at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight.

Another honour that Warrior received was the first-ever honorary Dickin Medal. Although the medal was given on behalf of all animals who served in the First World War, Warrior’s specific recognition is significant because he represents the resilience and strength of all animals in the war effort.

Animals serving the Canadian Army today

In the century since the end of the First World War, the use of animals in the CA has evolved.

Some units still keep horses for ceremonial purposes, such as The Lord Strathcona’s Horse and The Royal Canadian Dragoons.

Canadian Rangers and other units sometimes use horses to access remote locations, but the horses are privately owned and supplied when needed.

Dogs are not officially trained for military service by the Army, although they are sometimes obtained from outside agencies for sniffing out explosives or for search-and-rescue tasks.

Animals still contribute to many aspects of overall CA operations and culture. Dogs and other animals remain beloved as regimental mascots and are much valued to improve troop morale.

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