Meet Sergeant Stubby, America’s Original Dog of War

Then, again.
May 7 2014 11:53 PM

Sergeant Stubby

America’s original dog of war fought bravely on the Western Front—then helped the nation forget the Great War’s terrible human toll. 

(Continued from Page 1)

Dogs were also a key part of the Red Cross’ aid efforts, and every country had its own unit. Red Cross dogs, also called sanitary dogs or Sanitätshunde by the Germans, negotiated battlefields and no-man’s lands to aide wounded men. Saddlebags stocked with water and medical supplies were strapped to their backs. Because they wore the Red Cross symbol, these dogs were, in theory, protected from being shot by the enemy. Often, the dogs simply provided comfort and a warm body to dying men on battlefields.

Baldy and Allan
Baldy of Nome, famed Alaskan sled dog, and his owner Allan "Scotty" Allan. Baldy sired 28 of the sled dogs sent to France by Allan during WWI.

Courtesy of Project Gutenberg

Many dogs, including Red Cross dogs, performed heroically. In one battle, Prusco, a French dog, located and dragged more than 100 wounded men to safety. In 1915, the French government asked Allan Alexander Allan, a Scotsman living in Alaska, to provide its army with sled dogs. Heavy winter snows in the Vosges Mountains were holding back French supply lines; mules and horses couldn’t breach the impasse to move artillery and ammunition. Allan managed to transport, in secret, more than 400 sled dogs from Alaska to Quebec, where he and the dogs boarded a cargo ship bound for France. Once there, the dogs hauled ammunition, aided soldiers in the work of laying communication lines, and helped transport wounded soldiers to field hospitals. “It was enough to make one forget all about the war,” Allan recalled later. “Even when the shells were singing, to see a line half a mile long of dog teams tearing down the mountain to the base depot, every blue devil whooping and yelling and trying to pass the one ahead.”

Germany had a long tradition of military dogs and had the war’s best-trained canine force. In the 1870s, the German military began coordinating with local dog clubs, training and breeding dogs for combat. They established the first military dog school in 1884, and by the start of the Great War, they had almost 7,000 trained dogs. At the peak of the war, Germany’s dog forces numbered more than 30,000: messengers, Sanitätshunde, draught animals, guards.

Advertisement

Among the allies, France had the largest and most diverse dog units. At one point, the U.S. Army borrowed French-trained dogs for sentry duty, but the plan was eventually aborted because the dogs only responded to commands in French. At the start of the war, the United States was one of the few participants in World War I that did not maintain a canine force.

140507_HIST_Stubby-04_PershingMedal
Gen. John Pershing awards Sergeant Stubby with a medal in 1921.

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History

War dogs weren’t the only area in which the U.S. military was wanting. The Army lagged behind its allies in both recruiting and preparedness. “We came into this war without an army … so now must build an entire new organization,” said Gen. Pershing in 1917. Stubby, the foundling mutt, was thus an apt mascot for the U.S. forces: unpedigreed, untrained, an underdog.

4. Stubby in Action

Trench in Northeastern France, c 1916-1918.
French soldiers in trench in Northeastern France, circa 1916-1918.

Courtesy of Library of Congress

In October 1917, one month after landing in France, the American Expeditionary Forces entered the Western Front. The raw troops of the 26th Division were brought to Neufchâteau, in the Lorraine region of northeastern France, to train with more experienced French forces. The 26th would end the war as one of America’s most battle-scarred. They took part in four major offensives—Aisne-Marne, Champagne-Marne, Saint-Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne—and 17 engagements. They saw more fighting than any other American infantry division: 210 days in total. Stubby was there for the duration. The regiment’s leader, Col. John Henry Parker, was a gruff, intimidating man, a veteran of the Spanish-American War and an expert machine gun tactician who eventually received a Silver Star for extraordinary heroism. It was Parker who gave special orders that Stubby remain with the 26th. The dog, it was said, “was the only member of his regiment that could talk back to [Parker] and get away with it.”

A French sergeant and a dog, both wearing gas masks, on their way to the front line.
A French sergeant and a dog, both wearing gas masks, on their way to the front line.

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Stubby remained with the 102nd throughout the training period in Neufchâteau. Initially, he didn’t serve in an official capacity, but the dog was allowed stay with Conroy, even when he went on assignment as a dispatch rider delivering messages to command posts on horseback. By February 1918, the 102nd was bunkering along the lines of Chemin des Dames, the French-held “ladies path” on the Western Front, nervously anticipating the Germans’ launch of a spring offensive. On St. Patrick’s Day, bells and klaxons, the signal of a poison gas attack, rang out along the hillside in the Marne where Stubby and Conroy were stationed. For a full 24 hours, German gas shells rained down. Somehow, the dog and his master survived. (Perhaps gas masks were to thank—man and dog alike were issued masks, though the New York Times reported that “Stubby’s physiognomy was of such peculiar contour that no mask could afford real satisfaction.”)

It was at Chemin des Dames that Stubby reportedly saved the 102nd from a gas attack. The Times describes how one morning, while most of the troops were sleeping, the division was assaulted by an early morning gas launch. Stubby first smelled the gas then ran up and down the trenches barking and biting soldiers, working to rouse them from slumber and getting them to safety. On April 5 Stubby became a private first class, his first military rank.

Approaching St. Mihiel Front
18th Infrantry, Machine Gun Battalion passing through Saint-Baussant, France, in advance upon Saint-Mihiel front, Sept. 13, 1918.

Photo by Sgt. J.A. Marshall/U.S. Army via Wikimedia Commons

The 26th Division soon moved from Chemin des Dames to nearby towns of Saint-Mihiel and Seicheprey. The 102nd Infantry headquarters were set up near a dangerous spot 1½ miles north of Mandres-aux-Quatre-Tours. Known as “Dead Man’s Curve” because the hazardous turn required oncoming vehicles to slow down, the location made easy prey for the German artillery. Stubby and company were placed in support positions to wait for a German breakthrough.

On April 20, near Seicheprey, the Germany infantry led one of its first attacks against American troops. Almost 3,000 German Stoßtruppen (shock troops) fired on, and overwhelmed, a small contingent of 600 American soldiers from the 26th. Fighting was so intense that Maj. George Rau, commander of the 102nd, ordered his cooks, truck drivers, and even the marching band into the fray. The Germans claimed victory, leaving 81 Allied troops killed, 424 wounded, and 130 captured. Seicheprey sustained the heaviest losses in the Saint-Mihiel sector. Stubby got his first war wound at Seicheprey, when a German shell fragment lodged in his left foreleg.

By June, however, Stubby had recovered and was back in action. When the 102nd reached Chateâu Thierry in July, the dog had evidently learned to distinguish a khaki doughboy uniform from gray serge Germany garb: He recognized a uniformed enemy soldier. Stubby’s rage at the sight of a German was reportedly so “savage,” in the words of an Associated Press account, that “it was found necessary to tie him up when batches of prisoners were being brought back, for fear that trouserless Germans would be reaching the prison pens.”

In the Argonne, Stubby sniffed out a lost German soldier hiding in nearby bushes. The dog gave chase, eventually dragging the soldier back to the 102nd. To the victor go the spoils: The Iron Cross medal that had been pinned to the German’s uniform thereafter adorned Stubby’s Army “coat.”

140507_HIST_Stubby-05_BeaumontFrance
Stubby in Beaumont, France, 1919.

Courtesy of Division of Armed Forces/Smithsonian National Museum of America History

Stubby later took part in the brutal offensives of Saint-Mihiel, Aisne-Marne, and the Champagne-Marne. When the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, Stubby was in Meuse-Argonne. The process of demobilization was protracted, and troops stayed on for several months after Armistice. While waiting out the trip home from France, Stubby met his first of three presidents, Woodrow Wilson, on Christmas Day 1918 in Mandres en Bassigny. According to Bausum, the two reportedly shook “hands.” Four months later, on April 29, 1919, Stubby and Conroy were demobilized at Camp Devens, Massachusetts.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.