Red Cross Dogs: Saving Lives on the Battlefield

Red Cross dogs became famous in history for helping wounded soldiers in hostile territory during the First World War.

Red Cross dogs were vital in helping wounded soldiers during World War I when trench warfare was used. They were normally sent out at night into no man's land (the ground between the two opposing trenches) when the battles were not raging to locate the injured men. Their keen sense of smell and good night vision gave them the advantage of finding soldiers in the dark without bringing much attention to the enemy.

Many breeds were used as Red Cross dogs, also called Mercy dogs, including German shepherds, sheepdogs, Airedale terriers, bloodhounds, retrievers and collies. According to the Red Cross, it was about the character of the dog, not the breed. Before being sent to the battlefields, the dogs were trained under realistic battle conditions. After a few weeks of training, they were ready to serve their country. They knew which soldiers to help by the type of uniform they wore, and they knew to help only those who were still alive.

Saddlebags carrying water and first aid equipment were often strapped to the dogs when they went searching for the men. If the dog found a soldier who was not too badly wounded, the soldier could often stabilize his injuries using the medical supplies and then follow the dog back to the trench. If the soldier was unable to walk or was unconscious, the dog would return to his handler bringing back the wounded man's helmet or a piece of his uniform to indicate to their keeper that they had located someone. The dog would then lead a stretcher party to the victim. If the soldier was near death, the dog would stay and comfort him while he died.

It's estimated that there were upwards of 10,000 Red Cross dogs used during the Great War, and they were credited for saving thousands of lives over the course of the war. They were able to locate wounded soldiers in hard to find places such as in thickets and bushes and at the bottom of deep ravines. The dogs would also lead the men to bodies that were thought to be dead but when brought back to the medics they discovered they still had life in them. One surgeon recalled "It is purely a matter of their instinct, which is far more effective than man’s reasoning powers.”

One notable dog belonging to the French army, Prusco, was credited with saving over a hundred men after one battle. Sometimes Prusco would drag a soldier to a safe place from enemy fire before running back to his handler.

Red Cross dogs were true heroes during WWI and will always be remembered for their bravery, intelligence and kind hearts.