First Division Rags: The dog that had a soul

Grant Hayter-Menzies is the author of Dorothy Brooke and the Fight to Save Cairo’s Lost War Horses (Potomac Books, 2017) and From Stray Dog to World War I Hero: The Paris Terrier Who Joined the First Division (Potomac Books, 2015).

By the day of his rescue off a Paris street—Bastille Day, July 14, 1918—the scruffy little dog with the curling tail had managed to weather at least two years of life as a hungry stray. He had scrounged in the alleys of a city which, by day, was still full of hope that the Germans could be pushed back from Paris, and by night shook with fear of bombing raids and the terrors which darkness can hatch out in even the bravest heart.

If, as people later said, he was two years old by the time he surfaces in the pages of history in the fourth and final year of the first World War, the little dog had already learned much in a very hard school, lessons in survival apart from skirting the kicks of the unfriendly, the near misses by wagons and carriages and cars and horses. How often had the little dog watched nightclubbers run for cover through darkness colored with the bright lights and music of wartime Montmartre, flattened himself against some dirty cobbled street, as bombs whistled down to their targets from silent dirigibles overhead?   How often had he, like human Parisians, gone without enough food thanks to tightening supply lines and escalating prices—he who had lived off the refuse of humans with more than they needed, who now never had enough?

Figure15The storming of the Bastille, a prison which for centuries was a symbol of the sins of absolutism and the prejudice of the feudal order, brought down both and gave birth to hopes for a future of universal equal rights among all mankind. But the bastion’s fall, while dooming the French monarchy, proved to be the first shot of a revolution which also revealed capacity for atrocities which accompany all revolutions, sweeping up the innocent with the guilty, in its rage undoing much of its original democratic idealism.  The same can be said for the Great War. It toppled thrones and humiliated bellicose imperial Germany, and was said as such to be the war to end all wars. Yet the conflict laid a powder train straight for what was no great war, but a terrible war, with World War II two decades later. Granted, these were not matters of consideration for a French dog—even for the canine equivalent of the starving Parisian poor who stormed the Bastille in 1789. Yet the little stray dog of Montmartre, on that one-hundred twenty-ninth anniversary of the Bastille’s fall, was to carry out a fair bit of storming of the kind dogs know best how to do—with candid affection, with yearning for closeness, and with persistence in which hunger for love is even stronger than a dog’s overweening appetite for scraps from the human table. Down, then, fell the gates of a young American soldier’s war-hardened heart.

On that day, a century ago this month, outside a café or bar along some Montmartre thoroughfare, a pair of American doughboys from the First Division, one from West Virginia and the other a Midwest boy, offered the dog a scrap of brioche or sausage, looked him in the eye as nobody else ever did, and the Midwesterner, Sergeant Jimmy Donovan, let the homeless dog follow him back to camp, where he encountered another kind of battle, but where he finally found a home.

Figure8The dog would be called Rags, and besides giving him a name, Donovan would train the fluffy stray to be that rarity in the American forces, a messenger dog (only the Allied and German forces had dispatch dog programs), in which capacity Rags dashed through shellfire to save hundreds of men, who all soon came to know to whom they owed their lives. A signalman, Donovan would take Rags into misty darkness to repair communications wire; Rags soon learned to identify on his own wire ruptured by gunfire, assisting Donovan in keeping the lines open and his men alive. And Rags fought alongside Donovan during the last battles of the war—at Soissons, at St. Mihiel, and in the Meuse-Argonne—in which latter offensive they fell wounded together and together were taken off the field in the same stretcher. The same top brass who ordered that this be so ensured man and dog remained together through field hospitals and even across the Atlantic to America, where Donovan, gravely wounded by gas, was shipped for treatment and Rags was smuggled, at risk of his life, so be could be at the side of his soldier. At Fort Sheridan, Illinois, Rags would remain with Donovan until, at the soldier’s death, he was adopted by Major Raymond W. Hardenbergh, who had served on the staff of General Pershing. For the next sixteen years, Rags—with his shrapnel torn ear and paw—became to the entire First Division what he had been to Donovan: a “loyal, loving mongrel dog”, in the words of poet Minna Irving, who stood through thick and thin, from whom no barrage or cannon fire would part him, a symbol of hope for the men who had survived the horrors of battle, a faithful buddy in war and peace who, though smaller and weaker than men mowed down in the fields of Picardy, was yet in his endurance and his joie de vivre everything a soldier aspired to, everything he needed to understand that his sacrifices, and those of his comrades, were never in vain.

“There is no stronger bond,” wrote Pen Farthing in the Foreword to my biography of Rags, “than that between a man and his dog.” Many men would probably agree, but Pen, a former Royal Marine, brings special experience to speaking of this bond. Posted to post-9/11 Afghanistan, Pen and his men were befriended by a stray dog who came to be called Nowzad after the Afghan town which the Royal Marines held against constant attacks by the Taliban. “To these weary lads,” wrote Farthing, offering biscuits and pats to the stray dog served as “a few brief seconds of normality during the stress of war,” taking them, as Rags did the men of the First Division, far from battlefields and death, back to days of romping in sweet childhood fields with a boy’s and man’s best friend. Nowzad the place of bitter fighting became the dog who helped his soldiers through trauma, who brought home what mattered in lives that might be snuffed out in an hour or a minute. He inspired Farthing to found Nowzad, a charity which has reunited more than 1,200 dogs and cats with the soldiers with whom they bonded during active duty in some of the world’s most dangerous regions. Nowzad is the first and only official animal shelter in Afghanistan, offering veterinary services to suffering animals, education to their owners, and modeling a compassion which continues to spread in bright concentric rings throughout the country. Like Rags, Nowzad did nothing to cause the human battles erupting around him, but like Rags, he knew what to do—as all dogs do.  He went straight to the heart of his soldier, and stayed there, no matter the bombs or the proximity of instant death.

As we take a moment, this centenary year marking the end of World War One, to think of the men and women who gave in that conflict their last full measure of devotion, let us also think of the animals who, though none ever sparked a war, nonetheless served bravely, often to death, in the fight. Let us never forget them, the horses, mules and donkeys, the camels and elephants and pigeons, and the dogs, those swift four-footed troops of stalwart heart, bearing around their necks the fates of untold numbers of human soldiers, as they dodged enemy gunfire, forded flooded shell craters, leapt trenches and delivered their precious cargo safely behind the lines.

Figure24And let us also remember Rags, the former stray from the rough streets of Montmartre, who unhesitatingly did his bit for the soldier he loved, and for all the soldiers who also loved and honored him, who remains today for the First Division, for the descendants of the soldiers who rescued him, and for all people who, like the commanders of the Great War, saw no difference between the bravery of an animal and a human soldier, an example of the highest loyalty, the deepest love.

As Minna Irving wrote, on hearing of the elderly dog’s death in March 1936, “A hero true was Rags”:

Brave Rags, the gallant dog of war

That at his master’s side

Faced shot and shell, and gas and smoke

In battle’s crimson tide

Has mustered out, and wearing still

The glory of his scars,

Has trotted up the shining road

That leads beyond the stars.

Play taps, and reel the muffled drums,

Half-mast the battle flags,

A comrade of the A.E.F.,

A hero true was Rags;

And in the peace of Paradise

A soldier as he waits

Will hear an old familiar bark

And scratching at the gates,

And swing them wide to let him in

Where angels call the roll,

The loyal, loving mongrel dog,

The dog that had a soul.

As all who love dogs know, every dog has a soul. And every rescue can become your hero, if you just let him in.

The author donates forty percent of his royalties from sales of the book to Nowzad.

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