OTTAWA — While Remembrance Day is intended to remember those members of Canada’s armed forces who gave their lives in defending the country, it is also an important moment to reflect on the cost of war and the sacrifices of all those who have served in uniform.
Not all of those who served Canada — and in some cases laid down their lives — have been people, however. And while much attention in recent weeks has focused on Conan, the U.S. military dog who helped hunt down the leader of the Islamic State, Canada has its own legacy of animal heroes.
Tens of thousands of horses, dogs and other animals have served Canada and the Canadian military during times of war and peace. They have helped with everything from transporting equipment and supplies to carrying messages to saving troops under fire.
Their sacrifices are memorialized in a monument erected in 2012 near the National War Memorial in Ottawa, while a select few have also received the Dickin Medal, which was created a British woman in 1943 to honour those who have shown particular bravery and devotion.
Here is a short list of some of the most notable animals to have served or been associated with the Canadian military:
Gander — This Newfoundland dog was given to the Royal Rifles of Canada while they were stationed at Gander International Airport at the beginning of the Second World War. He travelled with the regiment to Hong Kong shortly before Japan attacked the British colony in December 1941. Gander attacked and chased off Japanese troops on at least two occasions during the battle before being killed while carrying an enemy grenade away from a group of wounded Canadian soldiers. He was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal in 2000.
Beachcomber — A carrier pigeon who travelled with Canadian forces during the ill-fated raid on the French port of Dieppe in August 1942. Shortly after the battle started, Canadian soldiers released Beachcomber to relay the first news of their successful landing at Dieppe back to England. The pigeon is said to have accomplished his mission despite having to fly through an aerial dogfight and efforts by the Germans to down such birds, and was awarded the Dickin Medal in 1944. The raid, however, was a disaster for the Canadians, with 907 killed and 1,946 captured.
Sgt. Bill — Many military units have adopted animals as mascots, and the 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade was no exception when they took on a goat during the First World War. Sgt. Bill was no ordinary mascot, however. He saved three soldiers by headbutting them into a trench before a shell exploded, and was gassed and wounded several times while living on the front lines in Europe. He marched in a parade in Germany after the war wearing his blue coat and sergeant’s stripes and his stuffed remains are on now display in a museum in Broadview, Sask.
Bonfire — Many Canadians know of Lt.-Col. John McCrae, who captured the horrors and loss of war in his poem “In Flanders Fields” during the First World War. Few may know he took his horse Bonfire when he went to Europe with the Canadian military. McCrae would often write letters home to his nephews and nieces under Bonfire’s name and signed by a hoofprint, and took the horse for long rides in the French countryside for a respite from the war. Bonfire led McCrae’s funeral procession after the latter died from pneumonia and meningitis in January 1918.
Hughes — Canadian military engineers purchased this pint-sized donkey from a group of Afghan National Army soldiers to help carry heavy equipment and supplies during Canada’s war in Afghanistan. But Hughes, who was named by his owners after a fellow soldier back home, quickly became more than just a pack animal thanks to his role in helping Canadian military engineers unwind in Kandahar after long days searching for improvised explosive devices.
Sam — Although a member of the British Army, this German shepherd and his handler were on assignment with the Royal Canadian Regiment in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1998 when he helped bring down and capture a gunman who had fired on Canadian peacekeepers. Sam was later instrumental in helping keep a mob from attacking ethnic Serbs until reinforcements could arrive. He died shortly after retiring at the age of 10 in 2000 and was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal in 2002.
Winnie the Pooh — No list of famous animals associated with the Canadian military would be complete without a nod to everybody’s favourite bear. Purchased by Canadian veterinarian and soldier Harry Colebourn and named after his adopted hometown of Winnipeg, this black bear would cross the Atlantic to England with Canadian soldiers during the First World War. He never actually made it to the frontline’s and was instead donated to the London Zoo, where he caught the eye of A.A. Milne’s young son, Christopher Robin Milne. The rest, as they say, is history.
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Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press