The Great Cat and Dog Massacre

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.”

The Last Tommies

January means a new batch of biographies in the online version of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, including Britain’s last World War One veterans.

(I can’t express just how much I love the ODNB. It’s a treasure trove of information, serious and whimsical. And it just keeps growing: 225 more biographies were added in the latest quarterly update.)

Among the new entries is a really interesting one on Harry Patch (1898-2009), Henry Allingham (1896-2009), and Bill Stone (1900-2009). They were Britain’s last World War One veterans, Allingham from the RAF, Stone from the Royal Navy, and Patch—who was, for the last week of his life Britain’s only surviving World War One veteran—from the Army. The entry, by ODNB associate editor Peter Parker, observes that it was only in the last years of their lives that three men acquired their status as bearers of a special, solemn memory of the war. All had lived relatively “ordinary” lives (as a plumber, a mechanic, and a barber) for most of the 20th century.

At the end, Patch the “last Tommy” was a very un-ordinary veteran. Conscripted into the army in 1916 (“I didn’t want to go and fight anyone, but it was a case of having to”), at the third battle of Ypres his light machine gun team made a pact to try not to kill anyone. Once in the public eye, he condemned war and declared the official Remembrance Day ceremony at Whitehall “just show business.” He refused the offer of a state funeral, and insisted that there not even be any ceremonial weapons on the honor guard from France, Belgium, Britain, and Germany at his funeral in Wells Cathedral.

Parker ends the entry by saying that “the ‘last veterans’ both represented and spoke for those who fought and died a lifetime before,” but that seems to blandly understate what these men symbolized in their last years. They certainly spoke for themselves and many others, but as representatives they became living embodiments of a whole nation’s collective memory. Harry Patch seems to have never let bearing a century’s-worth of national remembrance on his shoulders get in the way of speaking his mind, but I’m not sure how many people who saw him saw him and not an endless line of Tommies, sacrificed before their time: the interchangeable dead of national rather than personal memory. Representing that is a pretty heavy burden, the kind that we usually only ask be carried by men of bronze or stone.