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Felines on the front line: WW1


When we think of cats, we probably picture them snoozing on a sunny windowsill, not serving on the front line in times of war. Yet cats have been as much a part of the military sphere as the domestic one. In combat a cat brings a touch of a normal home life to serving soldiers. Compared to the horrors of war, a cat is a playful, delightful innocent.


It’s estimated that over 500,000 cats were deployed in the trenches in World War 1, and many more were used aboard naval ships. They served a practical purpose along with their mascot role. Cats were used in the trenches as ratters and more unusually, as gas detectors. Cats could detect the smell of gas at much lower levels than their humans, and were an early warning for soldiers to don their gas masks.


On naval vessels a ship’s cat was a serving member of the crew: keeping down the rodent population to protect the human’s food stores, and prevent rigging (and then electrical equipment) from being chewed through. Superstitious sailors often thought of ships cats as good luck symbols as well. They were so well regarded that, on board Royal Navy vessels, the ship’s cat often had their own “cat hammock”.


There are very few recorded names of cats serving with the Royal Australian Navy, but the mascot Ching, of the HMAS Swan (pictured showing typical cat-titude) is one such. Other ship’s cats, including two kittens of the HMAS Borda, and the ship’s cat of the HMAS Encounter seemed to find gun barrels good perches, and all three served with their crews in WWI.


In 1975, the Royal Navy banned pets from all ships for hygiene reasons, which is a sad day for both our feline friends, and all those who may have served with them.

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