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Remembering and forgetting the animal dead of the Second World War

2014 October 24
Individual memorial in PDSA cemetery

Individual memorial in PDSA cemetery

I have just sent off an article for a new book, Mourning Animals, edited by Margo DeMello to be published next year by Michigan State University Press. The book develops some of the themes recently explored in Animal Death. The article considers why some animals from the Second World War on the Home Front are publicly memorialised and why others are not.

One example I consider is the PDSA animal cemetery on the outskirts of East London in Ilford in which location it opened in 1928 an animals’ sanatorium, the first of its kind in Europe. In 1943, with the support of the War Office, it instituted a ‘Dickin Medal’ (named after the founder Maria Dickin) described as the animals’ Victoria Cross awarded ‘on an exceptional basis to animals displaying conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty in saving human life during military conflict.’ (Such medals are still being awarded today, for example to Theo, an English Springer Spaniel, who died in Afghanistan.) A few years ago Heritage Lottery Funding of £50K was obtained to restore memorials in the cemetery to individual animals, mainly dogs, who had been awarded a DM for acts during the 39 -45 war such as rescuing people from bombed buildings.

But the exhibition at the cemetery fails to mention that in the same site are buried thousands of animals’ remains deposited there in September 1939 – as a result of people having their companion animals killed. As recorded in its Annual Report of 1945, as other animal societies and veterinary surgeons were:

‘unable to cope with the burial of these poor Animals [the PDSA offered] the use of a meadow in the grounds of our sanatorium. Then, our real difficulties began, for, as far as can be estimated, we buried half a million Animals.’

Although the PDSA grounds might well be defined as a ‘site of memory’ only certain, individual, animals, whose exploits are narrativised to fit within the notion of a ‘good’ war are actually remembered. The hundreds of thousands of companion animals who died before any bombing (by the ‘enemy’) are not remembered in the this place of memory.

PDSA cemetery

Entrance to the PDSA cemetery
October 2014

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