Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Sleds of War

Transportation_and_RevoltGeographer Jacob Shell’s Transportation and Revolt is a treasure trove of stories of animals in war. Having begun with culls of Belgian courier pigeons by anxious German occupiers during the world wars, Shell moves in quick succession to describe the mobilization of American mules to fight the 1945–49 Greek Civil War, elephant-riding Kachin rebels in 1980s Burma, and camel-borne troops in Algeria, Sudan, and the American West. This use of beasts of burden in war, revolt, and smuggling, Shell argues, are all examples of “subversive” transportation networks that threatened ruling political regimes – a category which also includes Britain’s nineteenth-century canal workers and the New York waterfront’s cargo handlers (or shenanoges).

Shell’s examples of subservice mobility are interesting, as is his general concept, though I’m not convinced when he tries to show that it was a subversive connection with social disorder that led to official disinterest or opposition. (The exception is the most local and most detailed case, that of New York cargo handling.)

My favourite example from the book, though, has to be the mobilization of the dog sled, starting with the sled-borne warriors of Siberia. Between 1697 and the early nineteenth century, the Russian Empire fought a long series of inconclusive campaigns against Siberian peoples like the coastal Chukchi who used dogsleds both for strategic mobility and in battle. Using their sleds the Chukchi could move entire villages out of the path of Russian expeditions, hunting seal on the ice and avoiding the enemy entirely. In the case of the 1697 invasion of Kamchatka, Siberian peoples including the Yukagir, Koryak, and Itelmen used their sleds like ancient chariots: one man driving and the other wielding a bow and arrow.

Nor was the eighteenth century the end of the dog sled’s military utility. Towards the end of the book, Shell points out that sleds were part of the transport of uranium to make the first atomic bombs. In the first stage of moving uranium from the mines near Great Bear Lake in the Canadian North, “dog sled teams, driven by Dené mushers, moved sacks of the pitchblende ore from the seams to Port Radium. Next, wooden barges carried the material down the Great Bear River to Fort Norman, then up the Mackenzie River to Waterways, Alberta. The material then went by rail to the Eldorado refinery plant at Port Hope, on the north shore of Lake Ontario.” That made the humble dog sled one of the first links in a chain whose last connection was the B-29 bomber Enola Gay, one most advanced warplanes of the Second World War.

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