Animals Also Serve

This week at Tortoise Soup we have paid our respects to those who died serving a greater cause. Remembrance Sunday gives us the opportunity to pay tribute to the bravest of the brave: those men and women who put their lives on the line to protect their country and to preserve the freedom of the world. May they rest in a peace that was denied them in life. But we would do well to remember another band of courageous souls: the animals who have also performed extraordinary acts in times of war.

In the United Kingdom we have the Victoria Cross as the ultimate recognition of wartime bravery. The words ‘For Valour’ are engraved upon it to tell the world that the recipient is a person of astonishing heroism. Not as widely known is that there is also an animal equivalent: the ‘Dickin Medal’. This medal is awarded to animals who have displayed tremendous courage in times of conflict, it is a bronze medal and is inscribed with the words ‘For Gallantry’ and ‘We Also Serve’.

The award was created by Maria Dickin of the PDSA – a British animal charity. It awards the medal to animals who have displayed: “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving or associated with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units.” The first three Dickin Medals were awarded in 1943 – can you guess what animals they were awarded to? If you said dogs you are wrong. If you said horses you are wrong. If you said pigs then you were, semiotics wise, half right. The first recipients were three carrier pigeons called White, Winkie and Tyke. They evaded hostile fire to carry a message from behind enemy lines.

It seems that pigeons are the bravest of all brave animals. The medal has been awarded sixty four times since its inception and the recipients are as follows: 32 pigeons, 28 dogs, 3 horses and 1 cat called Simon.

Some of these animals’ stories are amazing. Ricky was a Welsh Collie who saved many lives by continuing to locate mines alongside a Dutch canal despite being injured by one. Punch and Judy saved two British officers in Israel by attacking a terrorist before he could get detonate himself. Princess the pigeon carried an important message home from Crete, covering over 500 miles in a single day! Other medals recognise the incredible value of an animals love: Judy, a Pointer dog, was given the Dickin Medal for helping to keep morale high among her fellow inmates in a Japanese Prisoner Of War camp.

Simon the cat was a stowaway on board HMS Amethyst, who quickly became a favourite with the crew. Amethyst came under heavy attack and Simon was badly injured, his whiskers and eyebrows had been burned off and his fur was singed and covered in blood from the many shrapnel wounds that he had taken. He wasn’t expected to live. Disturbed by the shelling, rats came out into the open and started eating the ships dwindling supplies and attacking sailors as they slept. Simon miraculously pulled through and soon turned his attention to the rats, capturing several huge rats every day. The ships morale soared and Simon the cat became its hero. Here he is proudly wearing the Dickin Medal around his neck.

No tortoises have won the award – as yet! But I know from my experience with my own beloved tortoise Ovid that if they were ever called upon to serve their country they would do a wonderful, if sometimes slow, job. Byron Tinker, the hero of my forthcoming children’s novel ‘Tortoise Soup’, displays many amazing acts of bravery, but the Dickin Medal shows that animal courage and bravery is the stuff of fact as well as fiction.

I particularly love the Dickin Medal because it recognises the truth that all animal adorers recognise: that animals can love us just as much as we love them, that they truly do have feelings and emotions. That they are really more than a little bit like us, just in a different form.

So on this week, and every week, let us remember with grateful affection service men and women everywhere. Especially those who are no longer with us. But let us also raise a glass and say ‘cheers’ to the brave animals who have done their bit to make our world a better and safer place. Animals also serve.

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