On the streets of Paris one day in July 1918, an American doughboy, Sgt. Jimmy Donovan, befriended a stray dog that he named Rags. No longer an unwanted street mutt, Rags became the mascot to the entire First Division of the American Expeditionary Force and a friend to the American troops who had crossed the Atlantic to fight. Rags was more than a scruffy face and a wagging tail, however. The little terrier mix was with the division at the crucial battle of Soissons, at the Saint-Mihiel offensive, and finally in the blood-and-mud bath of the Meuse-Argonne, during which he and his guardian were wounded. Despite being surrounded by distraction and danger, Rags learned to carry messages through gunfire, locate broken communications wire for the Signal Corps to repair, and alert soldiers to incoming shells, saving the lives of hundreds of American soldiers. Through it all, he brought inspiration to men with little to hope for, especially in the bitter last days of the war.
From Stray Dog to World War I Hero covers Rags’s entire life story, from the bomb-filled years of war through his secret journey to the United States that began his second life, one just as filled with drama and heartache. In years of peace, Rags served as a reminder to human survivors of what held men together when pushed past their limits by the horrors of battle.
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About the Author
Grant Hayter-Menzies is the author of several books, including The Empress and Mrs. Conger: The Uncommon Friendship of Two Women and Two Worlds; Lillian Carter: A Compassionate Life; and Shadow Woman: The Extraordinary Career of Pauline Benton. Pen Farthing was named the 2014 CNN Hero of the Year and is the founder and chairman of Nowzad Dogs. Maj. Gen. Paul E. Funk II is a commanding general of the First Infantry Division in the U.S. Army and has commanded the Special Forces units with military detection dogs while in Afghanistan.
The author will donate a portion of each book’s sale to Nowzad Dogs, a nonprofit that reunites soldiers who served in Afghanistan with the dog or cat they adopted while deployed.
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From Stray Dog to World War I Hero
The Paris Terrier Who Joined the First Division
By Grant Hayter-Menzies
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
The Hill of Mars
If numerous guesses add up to one true sum, the dog who would be known to history as First Division Rags — a scruffy, taffy-colored terrier of about twenty-five pounds, with floppy ears, fluffy arching tail, and perhaps more than a dollop of poodle in his blood — was born sometime in 1916.
By that year, Europe had been convulsed by war for twenty-four months. Few guessed at its beginnings that an archduke's assassination in a Balkan backwater would turn global bloodbath for the thrones on which the foundation of European society still stood and, worse, for international amity and the lives of an entire generation of lost young men.
By 1914 attempted and successful royal assassinations were hardly unheard of. Empress Elisabeth of Austria, beautiful and disturbed wife of long-time Emperor Franz Josef, had been stabbed to death in Switzerland in 1898; Queen Victoria had survived two assassination attempts, the second in 1882. Unlovable as bumptious Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Habsburg throne, had been, no crowned head in Europe but flinched on hearing that he and his wife had been gunned down with ease in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, or that the assassin's job had been made easier thanks to the Serbian government's rumored links to the terrorist group to which the gunman belonged. Yet the archduke's demise on a Bosnian street corner might have remained second-page news, a solemn but not earth-shaking occasion for royal cousins to gather at the Habsburg crypt in Vienna, awaiting announcement of another heir to fill his place as the senescent Emperor Franz Josef lingered on his throne. But like a swift brushfire, the couple's deaths spread rapidly into the broader tragedy of Austria declaring war on Serbia and then to the greatest and most terrible one, of Russia, Britain, and France joining Germany in lighting the powder keg of a war that blew most of civilization as people knew it to rubble.
Of one thing we can be sure. If Rags was really two years old, as claimed, when he fetched up in Montmartre (in the eighteenth arrondissement of Paris) in the summer of 1918, then, like children the same age, the terrier had never known a world not torn by war or a Paris that didn't cower by night.
Virtually from the start, the French capital had had to be on the qui vive for attack. It was the central prize of a German plan to encircle and knock out the French army, then move east to deal with Russia and break Germany's own encirclement by Britain and France. Zeppelins regularly came clanking over Paris, quiet bringers of disaster in payloads of bombs. The necessity of concealing potential targets meant that the city of light was often plunged into blackout — toward the war's end, Paris even laid out a miniature, fully illuminated doppelgänger sited safely outside the metropolis for zeppelins to drop their bombs on as they pleased. Despite these wartime illusionist tricks, residents huddled in cellars, clutching hastily grabbed valuables and shushing terrified and confused children, and listened for the thud of impact and explosion, hoping it would not take place over their own heads. Throughout the war, this scenario was reenacted dozens of times in other cities, not just in Paris and France but in London and other parts of England, where war on British soil was not within anyone's living memory. And it was reenacted in Germany, too, where so many wars had happened and where more were to come, where other terrified and confused children came to know, as their own children would know, these same random explosions and this death that rained down from the black night air.
Far from the fraught world of the Great War, we have the luxury of sitting back and speculating at length about where Rags started out in life and how he survived in Paris. Was he born in a basket beside a stove or in the barn of one of the farms that still surrounded Montmartre in those days? According to his first biographer, Jack Rohan, Rags was terrified of automobiles but comfortable around and even friendly toward horses. Was this because he had spent his early life among farm horses outside the city, or because, as a street dog, he had gotten to know the draft horses that still clattered through pre–World War I Paris?
Though we can never know for sure, it's likely that Rags was in fact from high-lying Montmartre, the setting of his rescue, a district that had a history of being attractive to warriors of many kinds. The charming cobbled streets at the feet of quaint buildings had been the backdrop to or actual setting for warfare since the very first settlements around the hill on which Montmartre stood. Its name, despite Christianizing efforts to derive it from "hill of the martyrs," in fact started out as mons martis, or the hill of Mars, Roman god of war. It was the location of a temple raised to that violent deity and, allegedly, also a place of Druidic sacrifice, long before the promontory became associated with the martyred Saint Denis.
Montmartre's height, made dramatic by its crowning structure, the Victorian wedding cake of the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur, often served a literally martial purpose, as when besieging armies sought to gain its slopes to pour firepower down on Paris below. A more lucrative result of these periodic influxes of soldiery were the many bars and nightclubs that sprang up in the district — the original "bistro," a word bestowed by early nineteenth-century Russian soldiers occupying Paris, is located in Montmartre. These establishments, along with prostitutes and their pimps, were drawn by cheap rents (more affordable the higher uphill you went), which is why nearly every fin de siècle artist from before and after World War I, as well as many writers, revolutionaries, working-class folk, and various creative eccentrics who straddled both worlds, also found a haven in Montmartre. These Bohemians, so-called because the French word for Gypsies seemed appropriate for people who lived unconventional lives, were there for a reason. By the time Rags first squirmed to life, Montmartre was changing. It was less sarcastic affront to proper Paris than gaudy self-caricature. No longer a powerful social statement, la vie bohémienne did rousing business among those it had once lampooned, and Montmartre was itself finally conquered by the crass commercialism and bourgeois values from which its residents had originally fled. Art was replaced by artifice; circuses arrived to exploit animals alongside bar shows exploiting women. The carnival atmosphere was only somewhat dampened by the advent of war.
Rags had clearly adapted while young to the precarious realities of the streets. All his life, he demonstrated remarkable resourcefulness in finding venues offering not only good food but humans most apt to dispense it in a friendly manner. Prior to his rescue, his days and nights may have been spent searching for those friendly people. There would not have been as many as there were before he was born, because wartime Europe, thanks to overlapping blockades by Germany and Britain, was decidedly thin on food of any kind. Rags never knew his parents' prewar Paris of shops so overflowing with offal and leftover bread and cheese rind that shopkeepers could afford to toss them in the streets for mere dogs to devour. If there is much about his years as a stray that we cannot know and don't want to imagine, it is nonetheless easy to envision him waiting patiently for a handout outside Montmartre restaurants or bars, eating up whatever kitchen scraps they brought him and sometimes going hungry, as people were doing all around him.
Young Rags would have needed all the sustenance he could get. The winter of 1917, his first year of life, as described by an American diplomat in Paris, was one of the coldest on record, with bitter chill lasting into spring. And when not looking for food, Rags probably spent the rest of his time as other young strays did, learning to scurry between the feet of dance hall girls and ordinary pedestrians, avoiding horses' hooves and the heavy boots of policemen, surviving day by day.
Occasionally, of course, Rags would have stood stock still, watching and waiting, just as the people around him would do quite without warning. Even in wartime, Montmartre was noisy, its alleyways echoing with a cacophony of music, laughter, shouts, traffic. But Parisians knew, as from a sixth sense, when danger was overhead — like the shell dropped by a quiet dirigible one night in July 1917, landing not far from Montmartre, near the Gare du Nord, the all-important railway depot of Paris. "At about half-past eleven," wrote American diplomat John Gardner Coolidge, "just as I was getting to bed, we heard the sound of the siren, not very loud at first, but unmistakable, a doleful, wailing scream." Hurrying to the basement of their home, clutching jewels and silverware, the Coolidges didn't hear the impact of the bomb, but a keen-eared dog, scrounging for his dinner in nearby Montmartre, must have done so. And if he had already then perfected his method for dealing with such situations, Rags would probably have been found flat on his belly in an alleyway, much as he would do later on the battlefields of Picardy, until the danger had passed.
Even in his lifetime, few would say that President Woodrow Wilson was not the personification of enigma.
Much of this was due to a greatly conflicted upbringing. Grandson of an abolition-minded newspaper editor from Ohio and Georgia-based son of a supporter of the Confederacy, Wilson spent a Southern childhood among slaves in a setting that shaped his conservatism on race and on warfare. As a boy in Georgia, he remembered too well the massive upheaval of the Civil War, which to many north of the Mason-Dixon Line was rightful punishment for a rebel nation that had held slavery to be just, but to many south of it was a cruel invasion that had destroyed the fabric of a worthy and civilized society. On the one hand, Wilson generally held black people to belong to a lesser order of humanity. On the other hand, the only U.S. chief executive with a PhD, he embraced female equality, especially when the political benefits of doing so were pointed out to him; in fact, he trusted his wife, Edith, to such a degree that he relied on her to govern the nation for most of his second term as he lay in the White House incapacitated from a stroke. The door of Wilson's mind, if not wide open, was certainly well ajar.
Wilson put forward his Fourteen Points as an effort to secure peace for what he hoped would be all time, contributing to what would become the peace-keeping body of the United Nations. Before that, however, and for many for far too long, Wilson held off any kind of participation in the war one way or the other. After the liner Lusitania was torpedoed in 1915 by a German U-boat, killing 1,198 passengers and crew, including 128 Americans, Wilson forestalled entering the war for another two years, infuriating many Americans (though reassuring the businessmen who made millions off trade in armaments and essentials with the enemy). He contented himself, if no one else, by issuing toothless warnings over subsequent German breaches of international law. Yet his administration fanned the flames of latent American xenophobia to a degree only bested by explosively outraged former president Theodore Roosevelt, who since the war's start had declared another war on "the hyphenated [German-]Americans, the professional pacifists, the poltroon, the 'college sissy,' and the man with 'a mean soul.'" Thanks to such rhetoric and to President Wilson's efforts to prepare the American consciousness for a war he could not avoid, all things German were condemned as suspicious. Even sauerkraut was renamed "liberty cabbage," not unlike the renamed "freedom fries" after 9/11.
When mobilization was finally ordered, on April 6, 1917, few American men were ready in even the most basic sense. Through the efforts of members of the Preparedness Movement, the praises of which were sung by men like Roosevelt, well-to-do volunteers had already been in training at camps across the nation. One of these camps was located at Plattsburgh, New York, the upstate military town that was to be the setting of Roosevelt's inflammatory speech on patriotism and manliness just as it would later be the setting for one of Rags's most memorable adventures. The Preparedness Movement has a familiar echo today. As in later American wars, demonization of the enemy was the primary means of whipping up support for conflict — in this case, the "Huns" were depicted as fiends with babies on the ends of their bayonets. The movement was also rooted in a single political party, in this case that of Republicans, who pressed a patriotism verging on the chauvinistic. It was very much along the lines of a crusade: weighty ballast like human rights and democratic process had to be cut loose so the overextended balloon of nationalism could fly higher and farther, preaching the gospel of holy war to all unbelievers.
President Wilson had had this war-drum beating in his ears almost from the start; that he held off despite increasing taunts and threats says much, both positive and negative, about him as man and politician. Politically, he realized that the European war had already invaded America and was dividing a people who would need to be united if they were to truly be prepared to enter the fray (which, little did Americans realize, was itself a masterpiece of allied disunity). As a man, Wilson hated and feared conflict and such untidy situations as constituted the European war effort up to 1917, locked as it was in front-line standoffs that, chillingly, did not put a stop to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men. Though he had an intellectual's distaste for everything to do with the military, of which he was commander in chief, Wilson likely also knew better than anyone that the United States was virtually incapable of waging the kind of battle needed to end the war. But this was barely a nick in the surface of what amounted to a lack not only of trained men but sufficient equipment for them to fight with, from rifles to cannon to ordnance. An added complication was the unseemly squabble, largely fueled by Britain but joined in by France, regarding how to manhandle U.S. general John J. Pershing, supreme commander of American forces, into allowing his troops to be subsumed under the Union Jack and the French tricolor, rather than fighting as Pershing insisted, as autonomous divisions under the American flag in association with Britain and France. (In 1917 British general Sir William Robertson went so far as to coldly suggest to Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig that if only some American soldiers could get killed in skirmishes, Pershing might drop his insistence on American independence.)
Three months after the U.S. declaration of war on Germany, on July 4, the worried General Pershing arrived in a Paris that was slightly drunken on unreasonable but understandable hopes for an American end to the endless European war. As Pershing and French president Raymond Poincaré watched from bunting-draped grandstands, a picked battalion of men of the American Expeditionary Forces (the Sixteenth Infantry) marched through the city to Les Invalides, burial site of Napoleon's restless remains. Pausing there by the bones of another dictator whose ambitions for empire had set Europe in flames, they marched on to the Cimitière de Picpus, burial place of Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, American patriot by adoption (and noted dog lover), and his courageous wife, Adrienne. There, Pershing gave a salute at Lafayette's grave in thanks for an old but critical favor. At the head of a French army almost 150 years earlier, Lafayette had helped turn another hopeless battle to victory for the rebellious Americans against the British. Now, Pershing's act seemed to say, it was time to repay the debt. One of Pershing's staff, Col. Charles E. Stanton, put it best in just three words: "Nous voilà, Lafayette!" (Lafayette, we are here!). That was all the Americans could say at that early stage — they were "over there," as the popular American song refrain had it. Demanding though they were at the best of times, many a French and British officer could be forgiven for saying, "Now what?" Pershing and his men had a steep hill to climb to prove that now that they were here, the terrible stalemate of the past three years could begin to crack, shift, and move like an icy river in spring thaw. Daunting, perhaps, for a less consummate — and compromising — soldier than John J. Pershing, but nonetheless worrisome. There was more to Black Jack Pershing than grit and buckram.
Excerpted from From Stray Dog to World War I Hero by Grant Hayter-Menzies. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Foreword by Pen Farthing Introduction by Paul E. Funk II Acknowledgments Prologue: Aspin Hill, March 1936 Part 1. Gutter Pup 1. The Hill of Mars 2. A Dog’s Life 3. War Dog 4. A Match Made in Hell 5. Last Battle Part 2. Days of Peace 6. New World 7. Family 8. Governors Island 9. Fame 10. Old Warrior 11. The Dog That Had a Soul 12. War Hero Notes Bibliography Index
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is the story of Rags, a scruffy, taffy-colored terrier with floppy ears and a fluffy curling tail. Nothing is known of his earliest days when he lived on the streets. And little is told of all his war experiences with Sgt. Jimmy Donovan. He served as a message runner and helped find breaks in communication lines. He and Donovan suffered a gas attack, which left him with a cough for the rest of his life and within a couple years claimed Donovan’s life. Rags was smuggled aboard the hospital ship taking Donovan back to the US, and aboard the train that took them to Fort Sheridan in Illinois where Donovan died. Much is revealed about his life afterwards when he joined an army family and moved to army bases in New York and the Washington area. We learn a lot about the pet cemetery where he is buried. An early book written while Rags was still alive is frequently referred to, with speculation on how much is fact or fiction. He was often taken to reunions and seemed to remember the men he’d served with. He regularly wandered off, perhaps always searching for Donovan. Despite his rough start to life and his war service, he lived a long life, dying at age 19. I received a free copy in exchange for my honest review.