These days, it's difficult to speak of the Great War without being struck by the animal metaphors that are used almost instinctively. The conflict is often described as a "slaughter", with the soldiers likened to the "herd" that is being led to the "abattoir". These platitudes are not insignificant, and many combatants would certainly have felt wounded by them, at least during the conflict. However much they accept to animalize the enemy (the caricatures comparing German soldiers to pigs are innumerable), they find it difficult to tolerate that their human condition should be forgotten. The soldiers of the Great War did not want to be seen as being reduced to the state of animals by an inhuman war. Most didn't want to be pitied for the conditions of their life (or their survival), but rather to be respected for their ability to endure them while remaining human. While the soldiers sometimes feel that they're being treated "like animals", the "like" is there in order to remind us that they didn't see themselves as sheep with no free will, but rather as men.
These men who don't want to be treated as animals sometimes display great tenderness for the animals in their surroundings. Of course, there are the nuisance animals that further add to the suffering of the combatants: the rats that feel at home in the trenches and the no man's land, the lice and fleas that take advantage of the insufficient hygiene, the flies and mosquitoes that infest the front during the summer months. But the soldiers are surrounded by animals that they could not and would not want to do without. Pets (at the front, especially dogs) perform services for them (such as chasing rats, finding the wounded, conveying messages), provide them with a bit of tenderness and inject some cheer into their lives while offering an appearance of domestic normality. Pigeons are widely used for communication purposes. In the rear lines, millions of horses, donkeys and mules provide supplies of food, munitions and equipment to all of the belligerent armies. Despite the rapid expansion of motor vehicles during the conflict, these animals are indispensable at the front and in the rear lines from the first to the last day of the war.
However, they are every bit as essential to the economies of the countries at war. The war becomes total, played out on the economic stage as well as on the battlefield. Winning means being able to produce more food and weapons than the enemy. Horses are indispensable in mining, industry and in the transportation sector. The armies and civilian populations consume vast quantities of food, even as the entire economy is turned upside down by the mobilisation of countless workers. In addition to the demand for food of animal origin, the armies also need leather and wool, in an era when synthetic materials are lacking.
The story of animals during the Great War therefore often casts a light on the story of the men. But of course, they must not be confused with one another. A concern for the suffering of animals is all the more legitimate since an awareness of this issue, that first arose in the 19th century, is important during the war itself. But at this start of the 21st century, does our hypersensitivity to the suffering of animals sometimes not convey our difficulty sympathizing with our own kind? As the very image of the lost innocence of man, animals become preferable, and their suffering becomes even more intolerable…