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Firefighters, civil defence and animals

2014 May 29



Wells memorial

Blitz, the national firefighters’ memorial near St Paul’s cathedral

In my recent lecture at Birkbeck as part of the Raphael Samuel History Centre series on London at War I talked about aspects of the changing animal-human relationship during the war. Contemporary accounts, including those of civil defence workers and firefighters, often refer to non-human animals. It is unsurprising that the civil defence work of animals has been acknowledged at the National Memorial Arboretum, as I have previously mentioned here.

In The official story of the civil defence of Britain published during the war a firefighter in the East India docks observed ‘Occasionally we would glance up and then we would see a strange sight. For a flock of pigeons kept circling round overhead almost all night. They seemed lost, as if they couldn’t understand the unnatural dawn. It looked like sunrise all around us. The pigeons seemed white in the glare, bird of peace making a strange contrast with the scene below.’ War was  not only experienced by humans but a range of animals.

Cyril Demarne, a firefighter who had campaigned for the memorial near St Paul’s, recalled rescuing companion animals. On one occasion he recalled a dog in East Ham partly buried near his human companion: ‘ he seemed bereft of sound and we heard not a whimper. I reached over the remains of the table and rubbed his ear… I found his collar and freed him. I don’t know if dogs cry, but two tracks, washed by tears coursing down his cheeks, reminded me of a tearful child with a grimy face.’ I will be drawing upon such quasi-official accounts as well as diaries and memories in writing about the changing human –animal relationship during the war.

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