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The role of cats in the Great War

‘They had no choice’ is a powerful statement usually attributed to the soldiers of the First World War but it equally applies to the many animals who served. The contribution of horses, pigeons and even dogs is well documented, but did you know cats also served in the trenches?

I have a long-standing interest in WWI history and decided to take part in the 1,658 Sawdust Hearts project: ‘One heart to represent every day of WW1. The project celebrated both the centenary of Armistice Day and the origins of Occupational Therapy.’ Many soldiers were given sawdust hearts to decorate as part of the rehabilitation process after their war service. This was the beginning of modern-day occupational therapy in which they used scraps of fabric and pins to decorate their hearts, which were often given to family members or sweethearts. The brief for the project was to decorate a supplied sawdust heart using a craft technique which would then be used in an exhibition. As I was searching for a theme for my heart I suddenly thought about cats and started researching their role in the war. I found many pictures of cats in the trenches, on ships and even in the mouths of guns. My heart was decorated with these pictures using a crazy patchwork technique. Purple is the colour chosen to symbolise the sacrifice of animals and you will see purple poppies commemorating their service.

Cats have never been a first choice for war service since as anyone who has ever come into contact with them knows; they usually do the opposite of what you want! However, cats are excellent ratters and British Admiralty documents from the Great War show significant sums paid out for the annual maintenance of cats to keep down rats on board ships. This is usually the wartime role cats are associated with. So why did over 500,000 cats see service in the First World War? Cats were most often used to keep down vermin in the trenches and they were also used as gas detectors.

With plenty of soldiers’ rations and decaying bodies available to them, rats thrived in the trenches, helping to spread disease. Cats became a common sight as they battled to keep the rat population under control. Aside from their ‘official’ duties they also played an important pastoral role as mascots and companions, helping to make the conditions more bearable and raising morale. There are little more than basic details when it comes to individual stories of cats in the war and even less corroboration but here are some examples:

  • Percy, a black cat who belonged to Lt Harry Drador saw service in France with the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers in a tank. Drador enlisted in 1915 and Percy accompanied him throughout the war which they both survived.

  • Pincher, a big tabby cat was the mascot of HMS Pindex, one of Britain’s first aircraft carriers and saw service in the Great War.

  • Togo, officially known as ‘Ordinary Sea Cat Togo’ was the mascot of the battleship Irresistible. Togo sadly drowned at sea in 1915 when the ship was sunk by a mine during the Dardanelles engagement. Leading Stoker William Burrows lost his own life while trying to save Togo.

  • Pitouchi belonged to a Belgian soldier Lekeux who raised him from a kitten. Lekeux was hiding in a shell hole sketching German artillery when he was spotted. The Germans called out which spooked the cat, causing him to jump out of the hole. They fired at him but missed and assumed they had mistaken the cat for a soldier. The Germans went on their way leaving Lekeux and Pitouchi to return to their camp unscathed.

  • Jimmy, described as a large long-haired tortoiseshell cat, saw action on HMS King George V at the Battle of Jutland. He suffered damage to his left ear when a shell exploded near him on deck. He was transferred to HMS Renown in September 1916 and saw no more combat action in the war. Jimmy died in a Chelsea cats’ home in 1924.

  • Felix (called Nestor by the Germans) ‘The Peace Cat’ was shot for ‘treason’. The 1914 Christmas truce is well known where enmity was temporarily suspended, and gifts and greetings were exchanged in No Man’s Land. Such unofficial ceasefires were deemed unlawful by the government and considered as high treason and therefore punishable by death. Felix went between the Allied and German trenches with greetings tucked into his collar. Unfortunately, he came to the attention of Military High Command who viewed his behaviour as fraternisation and a threat, so the poor cat was shot.

There are no official records showing exactly how many animals were killed while in service but it is estimated at least eight million horses died. The Animals in War memorial near Hyde Park in London commemorates all animals who have served and died in conflicts and contains the statement that inspired my heart.

The Animal War Memorial Dispensary in Kilburn has an equally thought provoking inscription: ‘To all animals who suffered and perished in the Great War knowing nothing of the cause, looking forward to no final victory, filled only with love, faith and loyalty, they endured much and died for us.’

More information about the sawdust hearts and the commemoration project can be found at:


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