“The massacre of animals in the First World War”: forgotten heroes and faithful companions

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Ten million between horses, mules and donkeys; 200 thousand pigeons and racing pigeons; over 100 thousand dogs. And again, pigs, oxen and chickens. A total of 16 million animals. These are the numbers of the four-legged army that flanked the 74 million soldiers involved in the conflict during the First World War. Humble heroes, often forgotten from history books, called to share – with traditional troops – not only the hard life of the front, but also special relations of friendship. As in antiquity – just think of Hannibal’s elephants used to cross the Alps – even in the Great War their use knew no limits. To tell their story is the documentary «Animals in the Great War» by Folco Quilici, produced by Mario Rossini for Red Film and Istituto Luce-Cinecittà, which will be aired on History Channel June 7 at 9pm within the planning organized to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the entry into Italy in Second world war (May 24, 1915). The appointment is on the temporary channel 408 of Sky “The Wars of History” (and from 9 June in reply on History at 407), dedicated to those thirty years (1914-1945) that marked our history. As Lucio Fabi wrote in Beastly war, a text from which Quilici drew inspiration for this work, what took place between 1914 and 1918 was “a modern and primordial war, which could not have even begun without the mass enlistment of millions of animals”. Protagonists – they too – of the carnage (here the story in pictures).

Tow horses

The First World War is considered by many historians to be the real watershed between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: it was the first to affect almost all the countries on the map and the first in which modern armaments were used on a large scale, but still remained partially linked to the tactics of the past. So much so that, in the common imagination, the animal symbol of the Great War is precisely the horse, man’s trusted companion in all-time battles.It is estimated that those employed on the various war fronts were nearly ten million: they were in the front row in direct confrontations, but they were also used to tow wagons and cannons, so much so that many owners were forced to offer them on the occasion of the “horse lever”. He tells it Steven Spielberg in War Horse (2011), focused on the figure of Joey, an English thoroughbred forcefully separated from the master. Animals to which loyalty is recognized. Major Francesco Baracca, the ace of the young Italian air force, chose to have a black prancing horse painted on the nacelle of his plane, with its tail downwards, a symbol of courage. Shot down in flight, on June 19, 1918, by an Austrian biplane, Baracca’s prancing horse he stopped flying in the skies, but started racing on the track thanks to Enzo Ferrari who chose him as the emblem of his team.

The “nose” in battle

Dogsinstead, they were used to find the wounded and, near the soldiers, they often became their only bond of affection during the conflict, inside and outside the trench. “Dogs of war” were called those in charge of transportation of food and ammunition towards isolated positions, such as on the Adamello where sleds with provisions, medicines, ammunition and artillery pieces were called to trinate. But the dogs were also trained to smell the presence of weapons, mines and explosives. An experience that still sees them engaged for example in the dog group of the Army of Grosseto, which since 2002 has been breeding and training above all German shepherds and Belgian shepherds malinois, used in conflicts such as Lebanon and Afghanistan.

Gadda’s mules

Humble and generous, tireless workers, thousands of people fell mules, which during the conflict represented the only means of transport through the difficult alpine paths which, not surprisingly, are still called “mule tracks” today. An authentic combat vehicle, the mule was instrumental in carrying weapons – carrying 105/14 howitzers or dismantled field kitchens on their backs – and supply logistic departments in the high mountains. If necessary, they warmed up the soldiers with their bodies or even fed them with their own flesh. «An uninterrupted column of stationary and abandoned mules testified that the bridge had jumped», writes the lieutenant of the Alpine troops Carlo Emilio Gadda, overwhelmed in the Italian defeat of October 25, 1917 in Caporetto. «The column of mules, precious and irreplaceable tools in our mountain war, was a new and painful blow for me. […] I calculated that two thousand animals and more were the abandoned: the black row stood out along the parapet of the road ». Many soldiers, such as what would soon become one of the most famous writers of the twentieth century, left in their memories a memory of the massacres of animals.

Movie heroes

Without forgetting pigeons and pigeons, which ensured the Italian Army a means of connection between the troops operating on the front line and the commands behind it. Gods were entrusted to them messages in a tube aluminum fastened to the paw or, sometimes, in a leather case that was wrapped around the limb: the only danger is that these animals were killed to intercept secret communications. Still others – as already said for dogs – reported the presence of lethal gas or freed the trenches from rats. “Heroes” become in some cases also decorated and media stars, such as the pigeon Cher love, the pit bull Stubby, or the German shepherd Rin Tin Tin found abandoned in Lorraine by an American soldier and became a movie star overseas.

The fatigue of the trench

But the life of the trench made known to the soldiers – already affected by the Spanish epidemic – other animals, such as mice and lice. The humid environment of the trench favored the proliferation of infections and diseases: several soldiers preferred to sleep outdoors, avoiding at least dirt and humidity at night, others began to boil in the water – when there was it – uniforms to fight infections. The infantryman writes about the forced coexistence with the parasites in the trenches Luigi Gasparotto: «Tonight was the festival of mice. Certain Slavic mice, the size of cats, with endless tails, ran on the benches, walked on the face, even came to lick their lips. I can’t explain how all the mice in the Karst met here last night. Impossible to turn a blind eye; mice from here, mice from there mice that emerge from crevasses, which descend from the ladder, which flicker and jump from one side to the other; real cinema scene ».

«Small military»

The reconstructions of the documentary were set «in the same places where thousands of boys fought. The idea of ​​telling these forgotten heroes, however, was born on the occasion of the celebrations for the centenary of the Great War, in 2015 “, he explains to Corriere della Sera the producer Mario Rossini, passionate about history thanks to his father, professor at the Sapienza University of Rome. The animals were the pretext for this talk about a universal story: «We decided to mix fiction and reality – even with raw scenes – to give movement to the story and make history, the one with a capital S, less didactic. Of course, it is a niche film, but it would be useful to bring it to schools, demonstrating that major events can also be approached with a different perspective, which is part of the commitment that Rai has always pursued by bringing on television the memory of the country“, points out. Not surprisingly – he confesses – «in the future I would like to tell the stories of Liliana Segre, Alex Zanardi and the gentleman banker, Amadeo Peter Giannini».

The “affectionate” work with Quilici

A work in which the presence of Quilici was fundamental: «I met him when I was 20 – continues Rossini – and to conquer me was his anthropological-documentary approach, his way of working like the documentaries of the past. Together we reread the little material existing on the subject, adding its precious symbolic references and anecdotes ». Among the things that most impressed him «the many stories of animals forced to wear a mask like men to defend themselves from gas. They were considered small military, they were indispensable presences in the combat “, but also” the suffering of the animals abandoned during the movements of the army “. And precisely in Quilici and what was the last documentary before his death (February 24, 2018, ed), the last thought goes: “He was a sensitive, lucid, present man. In working with him there was the pleasure of a bond that had lasted for 30 years, it was a loving and human experience, as well as professional “. On what were the battlefields, let us remember that – together with the soldiers – also rest thousands of animals that have courageously and unknowingly given their lives.

May 29, 2020 | 15:23

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