Of all the stories from times of war and conflict, those featuring unsung heroes tend to be the ones that resonate the most. When it comes to unsung heroes there are many people who qualify for the title, however there’s also a very large group who have served diligently and selflessly across conflicts and time zones for decades and are finally getting the recognition they deserve. 

Animals have played a pivotal role throughout the course of history when it comes to war time efforts and on 24th February we recognise their valour once again with the National Day for War Animals. Unlike some of the more established memorial days, the National Day for War Animals is relatively new. It was first dedicated by the Australian Federal Parliament in 2019 through Minister Scott Buccholts and on behalf of the Australian War Animal Memorial Organisation (AWAMO). This organisation is a non-profit charity that was established to find ways to recognise the important role animals played in military efforts and to pay tribute to the many who lost their lives whilst serving alongside their human handlers. 

It can be difficult to imagine the critical role many of them played but thanks to the AWAMO, their stories are preserved and their sacrifices also recognised. Horses are the most famous animals to have served and the group hardest hit, with only one horse returning from the First World War, of the 136,000 that were sent. While horses were heavily relied on for transporting soldiers between and on the battlefields, a camel corp was also established, with almost 6,000 camels making up the Desert Mounted Corps (also in WWI). Donkeys did the hard yards too as beasts of burden ferrying much needed supplies, while pigeons took care of communications, carrying messages during both WWI and WWII and in fact were in some cases even awarded for their exceptional navigational skills and gallantry. 

The animals with the broadest job descriptions however must certainly have been the working dogs of war - the first of which were used by Royal Australian Engineers in 1918, until the formation of the First Australian Dog Platoon from 1944 onwards. Dogs were used as messengers, for searching, for mine detection and scouting potential threats such as gas or explosives. Their strong senses of smell and hearing made them the perfect tool to locate wounded soldiers, and of course there are fewer companions greater than a dog in difficult times. 

 Many veterans will have fond memories of animals that will have brightened their spirits as well as provided essential help in times of conflict. A National Day for War Animals on 24th February gives veterans the opportunity to pay their respects and honour the selfless work of animals across history, right up to the present day. The AWAMO issued a purple poppy as the commemorative emblem to be worn for animals of war and a range of purple poppy items are available for purchase on their website in advance of the day.

 Nigel Allsop is president of the Australia War Animal Memorial Organisation and a recipient of the ANZAC of the year award. 

The 24th of February is a day all Australians can wear a purple poppy and think not only about our soldiers who gave their lives in war, but also spare a thought for the four-legged and winged heroes that fought and died alongside our troops". 

 Nigel Allsop