Selected by Barbara Ball, Metadata Assistant

Rex: a dog in World War One

Dogs had a vital role to play in World War One as the complexes of trenches spread throughout the Western Front. It is estimated that by 1918, Germany had employed 30,000 dogs, Britain, France and Belgium over 20,000 and Italy 3,000. This is my tribute to just one of the canine fraternity that worked alongside the men fighting in the war: ‘Rex’ a remarkable Alsatian dog, a fine example of a French Police dog given to Captain Edward Louis Spears by the Balzan brothers, a constant faithful companion.

During the French Army mutinies of May 1917, Spears was charged with visiting the ‘Front’ to make an assessment of the situation there. Rex was left in the care of a French Army officer at the headquarters of the French Army (to which Spears was attached). Upon his return, he could find neither the officer nor Rex. He wrote:

‘If I could not find anything else I would locate my dog if he was there, so haltingly at street corners I whistled my loudest, and presently, after an interval which, I knew quite well, was used by Rex in a careful test of oral memory to make sure there was no mistake and it was indeed his master returned. I heard a terrific and joyful howl and knew he was on his hind legs somewhere yelling his head off’

(Major General Sir Edward Spears. ‘Two men who saved France, Petain and De Gaulle’) 

Spears was promoted and transferred to Paris but before he went he asked a Captain Altmeyer to look after Rex for him. Spears later wrote to a friend ‘at the end of the war I asked him to let me have Rex back, he refused.’ ‘I have always felt very sore about that.’

I have chosen some photographs of ‘Rex’ and his ‘human’ companions living and working side by side – only one dog out of thousands that gave companionship, protection, affection and loyalty as they served the armed forces.

(With grateful thanks to the Archives of Churchill College Cambridge for additional information)

Ref:  Spears 2/86, 2/91, 2/92, 2/109

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