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Courageous animals

by Philippa Rae

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To celebrate animal bravery.

Preparation and materials

  • Gather some images of heroic animals that have shown exemplary courage in the line of duty or help us in other ways – horses, donkeys, pigeons, dogs, camels, elephants, camels, oxen, cats – and have the means to show them during the assembly (check copyright).
  • Useful starting points for preparation and further study are the PDSA website – at: – and the official Animals in War Memorial website (featuring the Animals in War Memorial in Hyde Park) – at: added effect, sharply contrast the animals as pets with the same animals when they are working for us.
  • Have available the song ‘Journey to the past’ from the animated film Anastasia (20th Century Fox, 1997) or ‘Stronger’ by Kelly Clarkson and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.
  • This assembly can be linked with cross-curricula study – creative writing, art, history, communication studies, for example.
  • Note: this assembly is also suitable for other times during this year when marking the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. You could look at the theme of conflict in a broader sense. For example, aspects of the material could be developed to focus on the different roles that different animals played, as well as looking at individual heroic stories.



  1. This year, 2014, is the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. As you know, many brave soldiers died courageously for their countries on both sides.

    Did you also know that many animals lost their lives in the conflict, as well as in wars that have followed? 

    Today, animals still continue to assist our armed forces in the line of duty for their country, in all sorts of ways, such as with transport, communications and detective work.

  2. To highlight just what those animals did for us, a specially designed sculpture, The Animals in War Memorial, was commissioned. It stands at the edge of Hyde Park in London, at Brock Gate, and has been placed there to remember and celebrate them. It serves as a powerful and moving tribute to those animals that served, suffered and died alongside our soldiers in the wars and conflicts of the twentieth century. Many people’s lives have been saved because of the work that countless animals have done for us.

    The memorial bears these words:

    They had no choice.

    That is, they simply did what we asked them to do. This serves as a reminder of the responsibilities we have towards animals. As they so unfailingly put their trust in us, doing what we ask of them, we have a responsibility to ensure that all animals are treated with compassion and respect.

  3. Other ways to honour and commemorate animal bravery in the line of duty have been devised. One such is the Dickin Medal. This was created during the Second War by Maria Dickin, the founder of the PDSA – a charity that helps to protect and rehome animals that have been neglected or subjected to cruelty. Because it is the highest honour that an animal can receive, it is sometimes referred to as the Victoria Cross for animals. Over 60 of these medals have been awarded to date, half during the Second World War.

  4. The famous book, Warhorse, written by author Michael Morpugo, now a stage play and Hollywood film directed by Stephen Spielberg, is the story of a fictional farm horse called Joey called to duty in the First World War. The story, however, is based on the research that Michael did, talking with war veterans about things that really happened. It is a sad fact that thousands of horses never returned.

    Those real-life horses, as well as donkeys and mules, transported ammunition and supplies to the Front. They had appalling conditions to contend with, such as the terrible weather and the freezing mud of the trenches. They had to both live and work in uncertain and intimidating terrain, with the frightening horrors of shellfire ringing in their ears.

  5. Perhaps a less obvious and quite surprising example of another heroic war animal is the pigeon. Thousands of daredevil messenger pigeons flew long distances, carrying vital messages into dangerous territory when there was no other means of delivering them to the allied forces. Pigeons such as Winkie, awarded the Dickin Medal in December 1943:

    For delivering a message under exceptionally difficult conditions and so contributing to the rescue of an Air Crew while serving with the RAF in February, 1942.

    Also, Beach Comber, awarded the medal in March 1944:

    For bringing the first news to this country of the landing at Dieppe, under hazardous conditions in September, 1942, while serving with the Canadian Army.

    In fact, a total of 32 medals were awarded to pigeons for their life-saving actions during the war.

  6. Dogs have always been humanity’s friend because of their innate loyalty to those who care for them. They, too, have done great deeds. Their supreme devotion, together with their intelligence, have been used to save lives by assisting in myriad ways, despite having to do so in terrifying circumstances.

    Dogs have helped us in all sorts of ways, by running messages, detecting mines, digging out buried victims of bombings and acting as guard dogs. Even when they have been badly wounded and pushed to the limit of their endurance, they have still bravely battled on.

    One such dog was Treo, a Labrador, awarded his medal in 2010.

    When he was working to provide forward protection for soldiers, he located an explosive device designed to trigger a series of bombs on a roadside where soldiers were about to pass. Had the device detonated, it would have caused significant casualties.

  7. As we close, mention must also be made of many other animals that have either helped or put themselves on the line for us in different parts of the world – camels, elephants, oxen, even cats.

    Since then, animals have helped and continue to do so in many ways, as the story of Treo the Labrador shows.

Time for reflection

Let us reflect on the debt that we owe to these animals.

Think about how they might have felt. How would you feel if you were put in that position and had to confront such difficult circumstances?

Think about the qualities that they displayed – incredible loyalty, exceptional endurance and courage in the face of adversity.

Finally, let's give thanks to them all, as, without their devotion and courage, many more lives might have been lost.

We also give thanks to those animals that still help us today in myriad ways.



‘Journey to the past’ from the animated film Anastasia (20th Century Fox, 1997) or ‘Stronger’ by Kelly Clarkson

Publication date: June 2014   (Vol.16 No.6)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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