Rags: From Stray Dog to War Hero

Rags, a stray dog who lived on the streets of Paris, became famous in history as a WWI mascot with the 1st Infantry Division who helped save many lives.

Rags and Sgt. Hickman (who was with Donovan when he found Rags), 1925

On July 14, 1918 Private James Donovan, an American soldier serving with the 1st Infantry Division, was walking in Paris when he stumbled on what he thought was a bundle of rags. To his surprise, the bundle was a stray dog, a mixed breed terrier. The dog followed Donovan back to the base, which turned out to be a good thing. Donovan was late in reporting back to his unit so to avoid being punished he told the military police he was out searching for their mascot - Rags. It worked. He didn't get in trouble and Rags actually did become the mascot of his division. Rags was instantly liked by the men in the unit and was great for morale, but it soon became obvious that Rags had a lot more to offer.

When Donovan was transferred to the front line he left Rags behind to keep him safe but the dog later tracked him to the trenches. Realizing how good Rags was at finding his way around, Donovan taught him to run messages between the front line and the command when phone lines were down. Rags learned his new job quickly and performed it well. Dogs are smaller and quicker than humans, and have a better chance at dodging gunfire and getting through obstacles such as shell holes and barbed wire while delivering messages. Rags also had an unique ability at spotting breaks in the telephone lines while working alongside Donovan whose job was to repair damaged wires by shellfire. Rags would mark the spot and Donovan would then fix it.

Rags was a smart dog. When he first came to the trenches he noticed the soldiers would hit the ground when they heard the sound of an incoming mortar attack so he started to do the same. In fact, with his keen sense of hearing Rags soon became the first to hit the ground and the men soon learned if Rags went down so did they. Many lives were saved because of Rags early warnings.

On October 9, 1918 the Germans launched a gas attack. Rags suffered leg injuries, was blinded in one eye, lost hearing in one ear and was mildly gassed. Donovan was more seriously wounded and badly gassed. Rags healed rather quickly but Donovan had to eventually be sent to a hospital in Fort Sheridan, Chicago which specialized in gas cases. Knowing how important Rags was to Donovan, people made certain that Rags was smuggled on to the ship that took Donovan back to the US.

Rags lived in the base firehouse (was even given a collar with a tag that identified him as 1st Division Rags) and visited Donovan daily in his hospital room. In early 1919 Donovan died and Rags remained living at the firehouse. In 1920 Rags found a forever home with Major Raymond Hardenbergh, his wife and two daughters. The family moved frequently and Rags became popular at each base Hardenbergh was posted. When stationed in New York, the Army press released a story about the dog's heroic acts during the war and soon Rags became a well-loved celebrity. He was awarded ribbons and medals, and even participated in parades. In 1928 he marched down Broadway with the 1st Division troops as part of the 10th anniversary of the end of the Great War.

In March 1936 Hardenbergh informed the 1st Division and Fort Hamilton that Rags had died - he was believed to have been 20 years old. Rags was a true military dog who knew how to salute the American flag. He was buried with military honors at the Aspen Hill Pet Cemetery in Silver Spring, Maryland.