This Dog Had a Sensibility

August is Summer Reading Month in Daily Nutmeg. Please enjoy this excerpt from historian Laura A. Macaluso’s New Haven in World War I (2017).

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At the Brook Gate entrance to London’s Hyde Park, not far from Speakers’ Corner, sits a war monument of a different sort: the Animals in War Memorial, erected in 2004 and dedicated to a huge array of animals. By some estimates, some sixteen million donkeys, elephants, pigeons, rats, dogs and camels served the Allies in wartime. The curved wall of Portland stone (the same material from which the chapel at Brookwood American Military Cemetery was built) is split in two, through which a horse laden with wagon wheels and a donkey prepare to enter. On the other side of the monument, another horse and a dog have already passed through the crevice. Some animals made it through the war, but as the memorial demonstrates, most did not. More than nine million died in service. Many of the horses, for example, who survived World War I were left behind and killed—once their usefulness was complete—or sold to work on farms and in quarries. Today, after one hundred years, we know more about the sentience and intelligence of all animals, and this memorial attempts to pay homage, especially in light of the fact that—as the memorial states in large letters on its façade—“They had no choice.” At the base of the memorial, on its eastern side, is laid a poppy-decorated dog collar, multiple poppy wreaths and a thick binder filled with drawings, poems and notes created by English schoolchildren dedicated to the many animals who served in World War I. Not surprisingly, among the many pages of plastic-covered drawings of all sorts of animals in war is a picture of a brown-and-white dog with pointy ears wearing a green coat with medals. The picture is of Sergeant Stubby —the most decorated animal of World War I… Sergeant Stubby is an American story about the relationship between a young man and his dog. And it is a true story from World War I that begins in New Haven.

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Stubby is about to go to the big screen—an animated film about him and J. Robert Conroy, the Connecticut doughboy who became his best friend, will hit movie screens in 2018. Many already know the basic outline of his story, thanks to books such as Anne Bausman’s Sergeant Stubby: How a Stray Dog and His Best Friend Helped Win World War I and Heal a Nation and the fact that millions of visitors see him “in person” every year in the National Museum of American History’s exhibit “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.” … This taxidermy-like reminder (after death, Stubby’s skin was fitted over a plaster cast containing his ashes, earning him the name “Stuffy”) does little to convey the tremendous experiences of this “ordinary tramp mongrel,” as one newspaper described him—traveling overseas with “Bob” Conroy and the 102nd Regiment and participating in every battle of the Yankee Division, including the Marne, Aisne-Marne, Saint Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne. He was wounded at Seicheprey and even gassed. Three artifacts from his life—a chamois jacket hand-made for him during the war decorated with thirty patches and medals, his equally decorated harness and a portrait of him painted the year before his death—tell the story visually.

Stubby was only one animal in millions that served, but he was unique. Although many soldiers developed close relationships to their wartime service animals (some British soldiers, for example, went so far as to shoot their horses when forced to leave them behind to a life of unrelenting work in Egypt and Palestine at the end of the war), Stubby’s role developed from boy and dog, to dog and regiment and, finally, to dog and division. Stubby was so popular that he became the mascot of 26th Yankee Division and even, as the cover to Conroy’s scrapbook shows, the AEF mascot. The reasons for this can be found in any number of photographs of him—and there are many, showing him with Corporal Conroy and other soldiers in France and after the war, leading parades and participating in innumerable veteran gatherings. In these photos, it is clear this dog had a sensibility about him that traveled beyond the standard traits or divisions of species, even for the dog, known as “man’s best friend.” Stubby probably licked his bum and rolled in the dirt like dogs do, but he was capable of smelling “insidious vapors” (gas), alerting the troops on the western front, marching in parades “in perfect alignment and with his head held erect as though he realized his responsibility” (without a lead and sometimes with a small American flag standing straight up, attached to the coat on his back) and posing with the utmost poise for photographs and paintings. Although one angry retired soldier complained in the newspaper that Stubby had done “nothing, absolutely nothing, but sneak along behind his master and wonder what the hell was going on,” the soldier missed the point: during wartime, Stubby brought companionship and cheer to a situation characterized by one newspaper as “fields of gore.” The soldier, writing from San Antonio, Texas, criticized the medals and awards given to Stubby—and the moniker “hero war dog”—but the decorations given to Stubby were not only a sign of humanity’s need to find something good in the middle of the bad but also of the cultural practice of commemoration. In this way, World War I was very much part of the nineteenth century, an era of stratified social formality in which political, military, religious and other designations were codified and celebrated in decorations such as artist-designed medals.

Stubby did not receive any special training—he was found walking around Camp Yale, the training grounds of the 102nd Regiment, when Conroy met him, perhaps both attracted to the camp kitchen—but his intelligence, captured by artist Charles Ayer Whipple (1859–1928) in this portrait in 1925, is clear. Here Stubby stands, looking straight at the viewer, clipped ears slightly back, his jowly neck beginning to hang a bit, his brown-and-white brindle coat less pronounced, his black nose shaped as a double curl and his “four paws that carried him over the battlefields of France” resting on the table, which Whipple has painted out of the scene. Stubby is very much a sentient being, that is, a living creature who thinks and feels—and even smiles. As photographs show, Stubby’s wide jaws would open at the hinge into an incredibly wide black-rimmed smile, with his broad tongue curling up at the end. Although the Animals in War Memorial is right to suggest that most animals who entered service during World War I had no choice, this was not true for Stubby. He wanted to go with Conroy, and go he did.

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New Haven in World War I by Laura A. Macaluso
Where to buy: Arcadia Publishing | Amazon

Image, photographed by Dan Mims, depicts Charles Ayer Whipple’s painting of Stubby, which resides at the West Haven Veterans Museum & Learning Center.

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