Friday, April 13, 2007


from Jacqueline

Whenever people ask me about “things to do in London,” they’re often surprised when the first place I suggest is the Imperial War Museum. It’s an amazing place, a museum of social history and phenomenal archive where the experiences of ordinary people in times of war are recorded for future generations. It’s housed in what was once part of the Bethlem Royal Hosptial – you may have heard about it by it’s more common name, which in the local dialect was “Bedlam.” The lunatic asylum. I think it is an entirely appropriate place in which to house a museum of war.

There’s much I could tell you about the museum – I’ve been going there for years now. I could tell you about some of the major exhibitions that have moved me to tears: The Trench, about the experience of soldiers in the Great War; From Corsets to Camouflage, an international exhibit on women and war; The Children’s War – been twice, always weep, mainly for my mother who was one of the thousands of children scarred by the experience of evacuation in the Second World War. I’ve used the archive on numerous occasions now, taking my place in the library housed in the dome, which was once the hospital’s chapel, and where the Ten Commandments are still enscribed on the walls (Thou Shall Not Kill ...). I’ve opened old letters written on fine onion-skin paper in faint but clear penmanship, and I’ve held my breath reading letters that might only have been opened once before, when the recipient first slipped a knife into the envelope.

While I was in London, I made a point of visiting one of the exhibitions currently in progress: The Animals War.

There’s no Geneva Convention for animals, yet millions have given their lives for our man-made wars. If animals had never been used in war, I could not even think of the greater number of human lives lost along the way, so here are a some veterans to think about:

Rob, the SAS (UK special forces) dog who made over twenty parachute drops during the Second World War; Roselle, the labrador who led her owner to safety from the 78th floor of the World Trade Center after it was attacked on 11 September 2001; Rin Tin Tin, who was found as a puppy on the Western Front and went on to become a Hollywood legend; Voytek, the bear mascot of the 22nd Transport Company of the Polish Army Service Corps who remained with his masters during action at Monte Cassino in 1944; and Simon of HMS Amethyst, the only cat to have been awarded the ‘animals’ Victoria Cross,’ the Dickin Medal. And then there’s Rats, the corgi-ish terrier mix who took it upon himself to befriend soldiers serving in Belfast in the Troubles. As one soldier said, “He was like an oasis of friendship in a desert of sadness.”

There are two animals, however, who have always touched my heart: Winnie, the bear cub adopted by Canadian soldiers on their way to war in 1914, and Sefton, the stunning bay cavalry horse who was almost killed by an IRA nailbomb in 1982.

Lt. Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian with the Canadian cavalry, was on his way from Winnipeg to the east coast of Canada, and from there to the battlefields of WW1, when he saw a young bear cub for sale - her mother had been killed by a hunter. He bought the bear, naming her “Winnie” after his hometown, and then smuggled her into England where she became the regiment’s unofficial mascot. A favorite with the troops, she was quite tame, however, when it came time for them to go to the front, Colebourn took her to Regent’s Park Zoo to be cared for while the regiment was in France. In the midst of war, Winnie became a star, not only because she could be safely taken on walks around the zoo and was calm and kind with children, but because her carers were serving in the war. Visitors flocked to see Winnie, including A.A. Milne, who brought his son, Christopher Robin, and who was inspired to create stories about a bear called Winnie.

Then there’s Sefton, who for a time became the beacon of hope for a nation. I was working in London at the time, and though we’d heard that a bomb had detonated in Hyde Park, we just all sort of got on with our work because that’s what you did. At lunchtime I decided to wander over to Regents’ Park – it was always lovely to sit by the old bandstand and listen to the band on a summer’s day. I was almost at the entrance to the gate when I heard the bomb, a sound that is nothing like you think it might be from films and TV. And then there’s that split-second of silence that lingers before all hell breaks loose. We were allowed to leave work early that day, and I walked miles with my friend back to her house, where I would stay the night. It was only when we watched the news on TV that we realized the enormity of what had happened that day. After that first bomb, in Hyde Park, men and horses lay dying of their wounds. One horse in particular, with twenty-eight wounds to his body including blood gushing from a hole in his neck, stood still, to attention, until help came. Following eight hours of surgery as vets struggled to save Sefton, the whole country waited to see if he would make it, as if hope itself would be sustained by his survival. And though not a young horse at nineteen, he lived for another eleven years, becoming a household name.

There’s a painting at the close of the exhibition, a bombsite scene that depicts the contribution of animals in times of conflict. By Steve Hutton, it’s called, “Animals: The Hidden Victims of War.” The tank in the picture bears the symbol of a fierce animal, as do many military vehicles. An elephant is dressed for the Roman war, but wears a WW2 gas mask. There’s a dolphin with her snout tied to prevent her from foraging while working, and there are the sea lions used for detecting underwater dangers. The dogs are there, shown in their roles as messengers, sentinels and in rescue operations, and the cat and rabbit signify domestic animals affected by war. The lizard is a symbol for wildlife lost, and there’s a broken tree to remind us of habitats destroyed. Pigs are there too – they’re used for weapons testing and battlefield surgery training, and the rats are not forgotten – researchers implant electrodes into their brains to remotely control them for land mine detection. Primates and other animals are used for testing of biological and chemical weapons. And finally, above the animals finely drawn, the dove of peace surveys the tableau.

In 1982, a children’s book, The War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, was published to critical acclaim. Set in WW1, in one scene a German soldier is talking to the cavalry horse. “That’s what this war is all about, my friend. It’s about which of us is the madder.”

Bedlam. The word eventually came to mean, “a house of confusion.”
A perfect place to record the lunacy of war.

It’s also interesting to know that a two-day conference begins at IWM today, on peace-building.

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  1. Your post is particularly interesting because I just read an article in this morning's LA Times that in 2003-2005 the Navy deployed 75 dolphins and 25 sea lions to the Persian Gulf to detect mines and underwater saboteurs. Here's the link:,1,6951466.story?coll=la-headlines-california

  2. from Jacqueline

    Isn't it funny, talking about animals being "deployed." It's amazing how we depend upon them - and at the same time, the navy persists in testing sonar equipment that is killing whales. As my Mum would say, "Funny old world."

  3. I had my first visit to the IWM last October. I would have enjoyed it more if there hadn't been a thousand noisy kids rocketing around the place. When we go back again, I'll be spending a few hours there and Bob will hoof it over to the Tate Museum.

    We paid homage to the war artists, and to the huge John Singer Sargent painting - 'Gassed' - in which the blind were literally leading the blind. It has a room all to itself, much like 'Midnight at the Menin Gate' has at the Australian War Museum in Canberra. The room is dark and the painting spotlit to hightlight the thousands of ghostly figures gathered around the Menin Gate at the midnight hour. It's incredibly moving. I found Sargent's painting to be so much the same.

    We were being escorted up the stairs of the admin section of the IWM when in my tiredness, I stumbled and fell on my right hand. The pain of the sprain stayed with me for many weeks, but it was worth it to see the painting called 'The Wall'. A fireman who was relieved fighting a fire during the Blitz, watched helplessly while his replacement was killed minutes later, crushed to death by the very wall they were trying to save. His was the only fatality in that group, and the man who survived went on to paint this particular painting. It was also incredibly moving.

    I do love stories being told of the resilience and bravery of animals during conflicts. During my visit to the IWM, I replaced a long lost novel from my childhood called 'Blitzcat' by Robert Westall. When hope is lost, it can be repleted by the affection or loyalty, common sense even, of a fourfooted, flippered, etc. friend. Blitzcat is all that. I am so glad to have found it again.

    One of the other books I picked up was "Ben, The Battle Horse" by Walter A. Dyer. A true story of an American horse of great heart who served in World War 1, and was one of the few horses to make it home afterward. It was a wonderful read.

    Thanks, Our J. for a great and heart-stirring post.


  4. from Jacqueline

    Ah, yes, the school groups can be a bit of a pain, so you have to take that into consideration when planning a visit. I actually found it interesting to eavesdrop on some kids working through a list of questions they had to answer by the end of the day - they were really getting into a big discussion about war. Obviously any school trip is a big fun outing if you're a kid, and at least they're being given some food for thought.

    That Sargent painting is one of my favorites, and I am always asking when the IWM is going to produce a print for purchase. The sheer sadness and futily is writ large in that depicting of the blind leading the blind.

  5. The L.A. Times story Patty refers to neglected to point out that we used dolphins in the first Persian Gulf War to detect mines. The rumors -- dolphins and sea lions as bomb-carrying saboteurs -- were ever substantiated. For a long time, there'd been talk about sea lions trained for offense, not just defense. That is, they'd clamp a restraint on an enemy diver, and pull him under to drown him. That, too, I believe, has never been substantiated. But there's been a longstanding Marine Mammal Training Program associated with the U.S. Navy down in San Diego.

    Some of this is the backdrop for my forthcoming "Trial & Error," which, as you know, I once titled "Habeas Porpoise."

  6. from Jacqueline

    Having read the article, I think the thing that surprised me, was the lifespan of the dolphins - one having served in Vietnam. I remember reading an article once where the trainer was asked what happens when a dolphin doesn't want to work, and he replied that every so often one of them goofs off and doesn't come back again. Can you blame them?

    Oh, I love the "Habeas Porpoise" title.

  7. Remember the dophin-speak in "Day of the Dolphins"..."faaah loves paaah?"

  8. What a wonderful post, Jackie. Here's to Sefton, and Winnie and Rin Tin Tin and the rest.

    Sad that we seem to ask even more of animals than humans in war. And they never even got a vote.

  9. from Jacqueline

    Ok, I never saw The Day of the Dolphins - I may have to rent it and see what I've missed.

    And yes, it's sad what we ask of animals. Some of the most poignant stories I've read are those depicting the bond between humans and animals in wartime. I have the book that accompanies the exhibition at IWM, and it is filled with such stories. And it's interesting, today, how many stalwart and brave dogs used in everything from bomb detection to protective duties are recruited from animal shelters - the dogs that owners gave up on turn out to be the bravest.

  10. "Day of the Dolphin" has some nice footage of the animals, but it's a pretty goofy movie.

    Buck Henry, who wrote the script, did the dolphins' voices. Not the high point of his career, although perhaps the "soprano" point.

    Dolphins do have a language, scientists believe. It just isn't English. But the snorts, whistles, and bleats may indeed mean something to the other dolphins.

    And their "echo-location" ability, what we generally call "sonar," is truly amazing.

    The stories of dolphins' "healing" abilities don't seem to hold up to scrutiny, but there are some interesting tales of dolphins' sensing human ailments before they've been diagnosed. Dolphins also seem to gravitate to children with disabilities.

  11. I just think it's amazing what we ask from animals, and what they give us in return - sometimes without asking. The shot of a dolphin in the post is a bit small, but it has a camera attached to its fin. My dad's friend was in the merchant navy in WW2 (the "fourth service" of that conflict - Britain would have crumbled had it not been for her merchant navy) and after his ship was torpedoed, many of the sailors were in the water and very much the target of sharks - it was a school of dolphins that effectively saved the men by protecting them until help came. I have heard similar accounts of such phenomena in the war, so it wasn't exactly an isolated incident.

  12. Brilliant post, thanks.....

  13. The realtionship between men and dolphins was well known even in classical times. According to Greek mythology, dolphins were created by Dionysus from pirates who had kidnapped him while he was sleeping. When he awoke and revealed his divine powers by causing the ship to be immediately grown over with grape vines, the pirates panicked and jumped overboard. Being a benign deity, Dinoysus transformed them into doplhins so they wouldn't drown.

    Aesop tells the story of a ship's mascot, a monkey, who survives the sinking of his ship and is rescued by a dolphin by pretending to me a man. When the dolphin asks the monkey, "Where are you from?", the monkey replied "Athens," naming the first city he can think of. Then the dolphin says, "Then you must know Piraeus." The monkey answers, "Why, he is one of my closest friends!" The doplhin then submerges and lets the monkey drown for his deception.

    If you are like me, do not go to the IWR without a packet of tissues.

  14. Every time I leave IWM, I have red-rimmed eyes from weeping. I was first taken there by my aunt, when I was seven years old. It amazed me then, and I continue to be struck by the humanity - and lack thereof - demonstrated in its exhibitions.

  15. I'm glas Day of the Dolphi was mentioned.

    On my trip to London I was forced to endure castles, the Tower and art musems. Next time I'll go with Jackie's suggestions.


  16. Oh, those castles can really get tedious after a while - get in touch next time you're off to the UK, and I'll give you a list of interesting places to go.