War Horse, War Elephant, War Ferret? The wartime role of zoo and other animals from Tommy’s Ark and the World War Zoo gardens?

 With all the publicity surrounding the film of War Horse this week, I was interested over Christmas to be given and read Richard Van Emden’s book on soldiers and their animals in the Great war, called Tommy’s Ark (Paperback, Bloomsbury), the animal equivalent of Kenneth Helphand’s Defiant Gardens book.

 Last week at Cornwall College Newquay, I delivered one of their varied programme of  research seminars by outside speakers, talking  about my research  into the role of zoos, zoologists, (botanic) gardens and nature in wartime.

Throughout the talk and questions, the value of nature and the natural world in extreme times kept cropping up. Peter McGregor the Professor who organises the seminars mentioned he had been surprised when he traced the famous research into Blue tits pecking cream through  tops milk bottles was published in and dates back to 1940, when he thought minds would be more  focussed on the Battle of Britain and threat of invasion.

The respect for and value (or lack of value) of wildlife in the midst of the strange life and death world of the trenches and wartime came up in conversation after the seminar too.  I was busy answering questions and  chatting whilst students looked through a small display afterwards of wartime memorabilia, wartime gardening and wildlife books and magazines from our collection. During this and other sessions, I’m often asked by students what they ‘could or should be reading and so I mentioned this new book by Richard van Emden to several students, alongside the older, more wide ranging books Jilly Cooper’s Animals in War (recently reprinted in paperback) and Juliet Gardiner’s The Animal’s War (IWM). Jilly’s book helped fundraise for a memorail to these animals in London.

Whipsnade elephants ploughing for victory (Animal and Zoo magazine Sept.1940) . In WW1, German zoo elephants did similar farming and forestry work. 

We had talked in the seminar about the known cases of keepers killed from London and Belle Vue Zoo (Manchester), many of them serving in the artillery either as hardy physical labour or more probably for their large animal handling skills of the horses and mules with the guns.

Alongside the War Horse type material of the suffering of horses and mules, Tommy’s Ark is full of unusual details about the mascots, pets and wildlife spotting, even the occasional spot of hunting and angling that officers and soldiers in the trenches recorded in diaries, letters home and in the oral history archive that Richard Van Emden and the Imperial War Museum have collected. Lieutenant Philip Gosse, RAMC, the son of a famous naturalist family, toured the trenches on the lookout for local small mammal specimens to be sent (stuffed) to the Natural History Museum in London. There is a roll of honour / war memorial of their staff killed in action near the NHM entrance.  Newquay’s doctor / director of health (or his relative?) Major AGP Hardwick RAMC crops up in the book, from an account in the IWM archives, of his smuggling ferrets back to the trenches for ratting duties. 

Tommy’s Ark  is a rich, rewarding, sometimes unsettling and well organised book by Richard Van Emden, http://www.richardvanemden.co.uk/ one to match his oral history The Last Fighting Tommy about Harry Patch  whose medals can be seen on display not far from our base in Newquay Zoo at Bodmin’s DCLI Museum   http://cornwalls-regimentalmuseum.org/specialfeatures.html

Why do the troops on both sides  notice animals, befriend them, make mascots of them? Several of these more unlikely or unruly mascots ended up in zoos, including the role model for Winnipeg the bear at London Zoo, better known as Winnie the Pooh in AA Milne’s books. The answer is probably the same as why the students I was talking to had staked their time and money (especially when tuition fees increase next year) in a course and career that will likely not make them rich. Probably not famous  either, except for some  budding wildlife film makers, photographers, potential presenters and journalists on the Wildlife Education and Media course.

It’s perhaps something in the blood, a vocation, a passion, a different view or value of the world that makes a professional or  amateur naturalist,  zookeeper, or aquarist  of one person, but seem a strange career choice to another. E.O. Wilson calls it biophilia, a love of living things. Richard Mabey has written very movingly about this, especially in his darkest days battling depression. Kenneth Helphand’s recent book Defiant Gardens, much mentioned in our wartime zoo gardens blog, covers much the same from a planting and gardening angle.  

The wartime pages of Animal and Zoo Magazine (1936-41) are full of articles that would not be out-of-place in today’s peacetime BBC Wildlife magazine – nature notes, photographs, zoo news – with the occasional snippet about how the war was affecting wildlife. There was an obvious  tension in the magazine letters page between those who would like to see no mention of the war at all (Dublin Zoo’s description as ‘a place of peaceful resort’ in war and peace comes into mind from Catherine De Courcy’s excellent recent history of that zoo) alongside those readers and naturalists who observed how the role, value  and lives of wild and domestic animals are changed by war.

The same generation that observed wildlife in the trenches went on to run zoos and observe wildlife in the Second World War where a whole new generation of naturalists were called up.  In this later war, the death of Chester Zoo’s aquarist Peter Fallwasser from wounds from the 1942 North Africa fighting (below) is made more poignant through his excitement about wildlife spotting in letters home from Egypt and the Nile, reproduced (below) in Chester Zoo News newsletters at the time. Copies of these newsletters 1930s – 1980s are available scanned on a CD Rom from Chester Zoo Archive.


Looking around the room at Cornwall College Newquay, many of the young men and women there were of an age where two or three generations before, they would have been called up on active service and war work and extraordinary things required of them. In an age where looming environmental problems and challenges are the modern equivalent of Churchill’s ‘gathering storm‘ in the 1930s, extraordinary things may well be required of this generation coming through.  


More from The World War Zoo Gardens project blog next month … until then, enjoy a peaceful few moments in the garden.


Chester Zoo Archive Zoo News, 1942/3

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One Response to “War Horse, War Elephant, War Ferret? The wartime role of zoo and other animals from Tommy’s Ark and the World War Zoo gardens?”

  1. Lost Ecologists of the First World War | Worldwarzoogardener1939's Blog Says:

    […] Emden’s Tommy’s Ark: Soldiers and their Animals in the Great War which we previously  reveiwed / blog posted about in […]


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