Animals have long been ‘recruited’ into the armed forces as military mascots and have served their masters with loyalty and distinction. Many of the mascots have been kept for ceremonial purposes, as emblems of particular units or simply for companionship, often bringing moments of peace and normality during the hardships and brutality of war.
For many of the New Zealand military units, especially during the First World War and the Second World War, mascots were acquired through various means. Whereas dogs have been the most common animals to serve the Kiwi troops, cats, rabbits, donkeys, monkeys, lizards, pigs, goats and birds were also adopted as mascots.
In some cases, the animals went to war with their owners while other mascots, mostly strays, were picked up in far flung places like Sri Lanka, Turkey, North Africa, Borneo, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Many were only temporary companions, but some served through entire campaigns. A few, such as the First World War Red Cross dog Caesar, combined their mascot roles with other duties. Dogs were especially useful for helping stretcher-bearers find wounded soldiers in no man’s land at night, a role Caesar performed during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
Another famous four-legged mascot was Freda who, in the latter stages of World War I, became the ‘official’ mascot of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade. Surprisingly no official photo exists of Freda and over the years she was wrongly identified as a Dalmatian, when in fact, she was a Harlequin Great Dane.
Another much-loved World War I ‘mutt’ was Floss, who became the New Zealand Army rugby team’s mascot when they were touring England in 1917.
In World War II, the most famous of Army mascots was Major Major, a Bull Terrier who was the No. 1 Dog of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF) and the regimental mascot of the 19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment. Another four-legged friend was Colonel Ben, who was the mascot of A Squadron, New Zealand Divisional Cavalry.
In more recent times, during an over seas deployment in Afghanistan, Major Syd Dewes, befriended the huge dog Gunner, who soon became the mascot of Kiwi troops serving in the Bamian Province.