Remembering (some of) the Fallen

On Sunday 8 November, an hour or two after the remembrance services have ended in Whitehall and elsewhere in the UK, a service for the other unforgotten war-dead will take place at the Animals in War Memorial in Park Lane. This Memorial was designed by the blog memorialsculptor David Backhouse, and constructed there in 2004. Its commissioning and making have been a great achievement, giving permanent and very public recognition for the first time to the part which animals have been made to play in human wars.

In letters cut into its very white Portland stone, the Memorial declares, “This monument is dedicated to all the animals that served and died alongside British and Allied forces in wars and campaigns throughout time.” Officially, therefore, it remembers only the animals who sided with ‘us’, rather than all the animals who have anywhere been forced, tricked, or otherwise persuaded to risk their lives in war-efforts. In this respect, perhaps disappointingly, it’s a very traditional war memorial, rather than (like the Brown Dog statue discussed in an earlier VERO blog) a statement of dissent. But at least it doesn’t glorify or sentimentalize its subject. The suffering of the animals, and their preference for freedom, are plainly shown: burdened, crowded, unnaturally jumbled as to species like the ruin of Noah’s Ark which war indeed makes of them, they press towards a gap in the curving stone stockade, and out into the freedom of the grass and trees beyond – a freedom actually reached and enjoyed by a great bronze horse and dog. And any disingenuousness in that word “served” is properly corrected by the brief and eloquent sentence cut into the stone by itself at the far right: “They had no choice.”

Better still would have been “They have no choice”, reminding the visitor to this monument that “They” are not simply history, but have a countless posterity today and to come. Perhaps in fact this memorial does have too much of a historical – specifically a First War – feel about it. But then that was the war in which animals have been most visibly used: not just the horses but, as the Memorial shows, mules, camels, dogs, cats, pigeons, even elephants. But yes, horses most visibly and numerously of all. Hence that cry of distress in a letter written by the composer Edward Elgar as early as 25 August 1914: “Concerning the war I say nothing – the only thing that wrings my heart and soul is the thought of the horses – oh! my beloved animals … Oh, my horses.”

And that too was the war which set the style for modernity in battle, where humans and these other animals would be only the perishable element in a contest largely to be characterized and determined by science and machinery. And here the setting of the Memorial is uncomfortably apt: not a pastoral or even a tolerably quiet scene, but Park Lane’s contribution to carmageddon, vehicles crowding past on either side (the Memorial is in between the two carriage-ways), suggesting in their roar and stink that peace, in a consumerist society, is only the continuation of war in other forms.

About one aspect of the First World War, however, the memorial is silent. It was that war, specifically its science front, which enlisted animals into a wholly new variety of war work: weapons research, which for the UK began in 1916 at Porton Down with the study of poison gas.

This is the least glorious of all types of animal ‘service’ – lacking as it does any scope for the mutual affection and loyalty suggested in that telling word “alongside” in the text of the Memorial, and not likely to earn any animal the PDSA’s Dickin Medal “For Gallantry”. It ought really to get this much recognition, a place among the representations here, but most unfortunately it does not. There are no images of monkeys to recall their service for “Allied forces” on the hellish Primate Equilibrium Platforms at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas; no dolphins and whales to memorialize the ways in which their kind have been put to cruel and unnatural work at the Kanobe Bay Naval Undersea Centre near Pearl Harbour. (It was about these last experiments that the marine biologist Jaques Cousteau said, “No sooner does man discover intelligence, than he tries to involve it in his own stupidity.”)[1]

Nor are there any pigs shown on the Memorial, to record the service of their species in the training of British military surgeons. The gruesome nature of that service, and its needlessness, was the subject of an open letter to the Ministry of Defence last year by a group of vets led by VERO’s science advisor André Menache.[2] It has been taking place for some years mainly at Jaegerspris, Denmark: courtesy, then, of other “Allied forces”, though a Ministry of Defence enterprise. Until recently, it was code-named ‘Exercise Danish Bacon’, a helpful insight into the Porton Down mentality.

The exigencies of battle may bring down cruel demands upon the animals innocently induced to ‘serve’. The Park Lane Memorial records something of those demands with proper sadness and respect, if without explicit protest. But fear of war is an even more pitiless taskmaster. One witness speaking on behalf of Porton Down to a House of Lords committee a few years ago said, of the possibility that pneumonic plague might be used as an infective agent against us in war, “For an agent like that, there is virtually no price not worth paying to get an effective antidote.”[3] He meant, of course, ‘not worth their paying’. The familiar mixture of cowardice and ruthlessness in that attitude – qualities so antithetical to the conduct of war as we prefer to remember it in our memorials – perhaps provides an explanation of why this aspect of animals’ war-work was omitted in Park Lane. It’s simply too ignoble to be willingly remembered.

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[1] Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 1995 edition, pp.25-9; Richard Ryder, Victims of Science, 1975, pp.79-80, where Cousteau is quoted.

[2] See under 6 May 2014

[3] Evidence of Dr Lewis Moonie, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, to the Lords’ Select Committee on Animals in Scientific Procedures, April 2002