Greyhounds and Lurchers in The Great War

The Dog That Saved a Town

by Joan Dillon

The barrage from the big German guns continues for yet another day. Trapped in the town of Verdun, ammunition nearly gone, the small French garrison knows that surrender is merely a matter of time.

When all seems lost, a flicker of movement appears in the distance.

Duval recognizes the sleek long-limbed form of Satan, his only surviving messenger dog and hope stirs in his breast. Satan and the message he carries may be their only chance. Yet, although Satan has traversed this route many times in the past, it was never under such adverse conditions.

Satan hesitates, the smell of cordite plucking at his nostrils. He loves Duval and wants to go to him but the noise is deafening and the air thick with flying shells. Then, loyalty wins and the black greyhound-like dog hurls himself into the no man’s land that lies between them.

Immediately the enemy troops spot Satan.

The German commander brings up his best sharpshooters. The dog must not be allowed to reach Verdun….

CRAAACK! Satan staggers and goes down. A German bullet has found its target.

All thought of his own safety forgotten, Duval surges to his feet. He cries, “Satan! Satan! Come mon ami! For France! For….” His words are cut off as another German sharpshooter finds the range.

A bullet strikes Duval but Satan has heard the beloved voice.

The dog staggers to his feet, one leg hanging useless, pierced by a German bullet. The blood of his greyhound father surges through his veins and Satan, now on three legs, continues his dangerous race against death…and wins.

Reaching Verdun, exhausted, he totters into the eager arms of the French soldiers. Someone removes a note from the messenger cylinder. It is from a well-known commander and reads, “For God’s sake hold on, will send troops to relieve you tomorrow.” But, how can they? Their ammunition is almost gone and the German guns have their range.

Turning to Satan’s precious cargo, they remove two carrier pigeons from the baskets strapped to his back. Someone gives the coordinates for the German guns. A message is written out in duplicate and attached to the legs of both pigeons. Then, tossed in the air, the pigeons begin their journey back to the French lines. The German lookouts spot them and a barrage of bullets follows. One winged messenger plummets slowly to the ground in a swirl of feathers but the other flies on uninjured.

At the loft, the message is read and the coordinates called out to the French gunners. Booooom! The French cannons roar and the German guns are silenced. Verdun is saved.

The above is a true story and is based on information contained in Ernest Harold Baynes’ 1925 book, Animal Heroes of The Great War. Satan was a French messenger dog. The progeny of a greyhound father and a collie mother, he was what is known in England and parts of Europe as a lurcher (crossbred greyhound). Classified by the French army as an “estafette,” Satan had been trained to run from various locations carrying messages to his handler.

Only a few greyhounds were used as messenger dogs. Lt. Col. E. H. Richardson, Commandant of the British War Dog School, discovered that greyhounds tended to be unreliable at distances of more than a mile as they lost interest if something crossed their path. Lurchers did surprisingly well however. Along with collies and airedales, they outnumbered all other breeds in the messenger service. Many, including Satan, served with distinction. Greyhounds also served as mascots and helped lift the morale of the troops with which they served. The accompanying photo appeared in the March 1919 issue of The National Geographic Magazine and shows a Lurcher in action as a French messenger dog.

Mr. Baynes sums up the value of war dogs to the armed forces very well in the following quote. “The guard dog was incorruptible; the police dog dependable; the messenger dog reliable. The human watchman might be bought; not so the dog. The soldier sentinel might fall asleep; never the dog. The battlefield runner might fail for many reasons and yet live; but the dog, to his last breath, would follow the line of duty. The dog is the only animal to take over man’s duties, and he does them in a better-than-man way.”

CG F 99

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED  This article is not available for reprinting or reposting. 

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