“Two years lost”, laments Lt. Colonel. Edwin Heautenville Richardson. Two years of countless “runners”, upright, slow-moving targets, snagged on barbed wire, gassed, shot, their vital messages – “advance”, “retreat”, “send reinforcements”
Creating the Centena
My subject choice stemmed from a guided tour of the Imperial War Museum’s First World War exhibition, my interest being particularly piqued by the exhibit of a messenger dog-collar. Subsequent research revealed that, regarding the British army’s deployment of “dogs of war”, one name was pre-eminent: Lt. Colonel Edwin Heautenville Richardson.
It quickly became apparent that, despite his having an international reputation as a dog-trainer – three weeks before the outbreak of WW1 he was judging dogs alongside German counterparts in Russia – and other armies using dogs from the outset, the British Military hierarchy failed to see their worth and ignored Richardson’s pleas for two years. When finally persuaded, they charged him with establishing a dog-training school in Shoeburyness, its Essex coastal location, within audio-range of the heavy guns across the sea, thought ideal to acclimatise dogs to working in the heat of battle.
An invaluable resource was provided by www.julius-k9.com, a download (courtesy www.archive.org), of Richardson’s 1920 book, British War Dogs: Their Training and Psychology, much of the content of which was corroborated by biographical details provided on that site and others, namely www.k9history.com, www.maryevans.com and www.foreighpolicy.com/the-dog-whisperer. The latter considered his attitude to dogs, at least, put him ahead of his time, leading to my use of that phrase, and a famous Orwell line from Animal Farm, in my centena. Similarly enlightened in his attitude to his wife, perhaps, he lauded her as his equal in dog-training. (*Inspired by his example, I must record here that my wife Maureen was responsible for finding most of the afore-mentioned resources).
While Richardson appears to have been fairly traditional in his attitude to soldiers, insisting on his dog-trainers being in A1 health and destined to serve in the front line, rather than “shirkers”, he believed “coercion and fear” had no place in dog-training, preferring, instead, confidence, affection and reward. Initially, my intention was to highlight the contrast between that belief and the prevailing attitude to human conscripts but distilling this message into 100 words proved difficult. I then toyed with the idea of highlighting the dubious anthropomorphism inherent in his assertion that dogs should be awarded the “great honour” of serving His Majesty in a “righteous cause” – but context, not least the fact that many “recruits” would otherwise have been destined for the Battersea “lethal chamber”, persuaded me to ditch my own righteousness. Thus did I arrive at the idea of contrasting the superior speed, reliability and survival rates of the canine recruits with their human predecessors and speculating on the human cost of the delay in their introduction.
Apart from the resource sites already mentioned I would like to thank one of the partner organisations, Gateways to The First World War, for a very positive response to the project and additional suggestions for research, and, finally, I must record my debt to my editor, Lucy Beevor, whose always positive and constructive comments helped me ultimately shape something that I could be happy with.
Lives of the First World War.
You can find out more about Lt. Colonel. Edwin Heautenville Richardson here at Lives of the First World War.
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