On September 3, 1939 the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. The population of Great Britain quickly prepared for the bombing raids they expected to receive. They strung up blackout curtains, built bomb shelters, and dug trenches. Many also killed or had their pets killed, with an estimated death toll in London alone of 400,000–700,000. That’s roughly 26% of the prewar population of companion animals. Those who had their pets euthanized did so against the advice of the veterinary profession, animal welfare charities, and even the government-sponsored National Air Raid Precautions Animals’ Comittee (NARPAC). Though the British government already had an ambivalent relationship with pets before, even it had not foreseen mass preemptive killing before the first bombs had fallen. In a sense, these animals were the first casualties of Britain’s war.
It is these September killings which give Hilda Kean’s new book, The Great Cat and Dog Massacre, its title. The phrase is a play on the title of a famous essay by historian Robert Darnton on the symbolic significance of pets in early modern France and a pointer towards how Kean frames her topic. Positioning the book as a contribution to the burgeoning field of Animal Studies, Kean indicates that she is less interested in symbolism and more interested in the two-way connection between pets and their people during the war. More than that, her aim is to bring animals back from the periphery of the story, where they exist as adjuncts to how humans conceive themselves, and to put them center stage as historical actors in their own right.
For those who survived the September crisis, Kean argues, rationing, air raids, and privation brought companion animals and their masters closers together in wartime than they had been in peace – and this despite ambivalent government policy that rarely saw non-working animals as anything other than idle mouths or nuisances.
Despite Kean’s impressive research into official and unofficial sources that shed light on human-companion animal relations – government papers, personal diaries, oral histories, advertisements, and the archives of Mass Observation – its remains challenging to write an animal-centric account of these wartime moments. Still, Kean has more than enough to offer a fresh perspective on the British Home Front. That includes the lives of the official and unofficial cat inhabitants of the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street. The former was “Treasury Bill,” aka “The Munich Mouser,” a rat-catcher. The latter was “Nelson,” who served at least some of the time as Winston Churchill’s foot-warmer. Their lives, at the heart of the British war machine, are good examples of how the Second World War in Britain was more than just a “People’s War.”