In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Animals and the Military

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Overviews and Surveys
  • Journals
  • The Military Horse in the Prehistoric and Ancient World
  • The Military Horse from the Medieval to the Early Modern Periods
  • Warfare and the “Horse Cultures” of the Americas
  • Military Activity and the Horse in Africa
  • Horses and the Modern Military
  • Mules
  • Dogs
  • Elephants
  • Camels
  • Pigeons
  • Marine Mammals
  • Veterinary Services
  • Animals, Ecology, and Warfare

Military History Animals and the Military
Gervase Phillips
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0001


Any sustained reading of military history quickly reveals how a general human assumption of dominion over all other forms of life has ensured that warfare, besides its obvious association with human suffering, ought to be linked also to the deliberate exploitation of, and systemic cruelty toward, animals. The examples are legion: the overburdened, underfed horses, mules, oxen, and camels, those “beasts of burden” under the lash of riders and drivers, that sustained military mobility and logistics through the first half of the 20th century; the sensitive and intelligent elephant used as an instrument of slaughter or of the faithful and amenable dog utilized as a means of delivering explosives on the battlefield. Thus, whatever specific debates may have developed around the role of a particular animal in a particular time and place, it would not be inappropriate if the theme of “exploitation” was considered the underlying and unifying motif of the study of animals and the military. Yet, in many ways, this would be an oversimplification, since animals have not merely been the passive objects of exploitation; their physical and behavioral characteristics have shaped military activity just as they have shaped human agriculture, economics, social structure, and culture. They have thus demonstrated the potential to effect powerful changes on human societies. One need only think of the meteoric rise of the nomadic, equestrian cultures of the Great Plains of North America, following the reintroduction of the horse to the continent, to grasp this point. Furthermore, human attitudes toward animals are historically contingent. Transformations in those human attitudes, especially those concerning the moral obligations of humans toward other species, have fascinating implications for the relationship between soldier and animal; in modern Botswana the military is the protector, not the exploiter, of the elephant. Scholarly understanding, too, of the relationship between humans and animals has, happily, progressed far beyond opinions of those such as René Descartes (b. 1596–d. 1650), who dismissed the latter as mere “beast-machines,” automatons without mind or agency beyond the blind dictates of instinct. It is not merely the growing awareness of moral obligation toward animals but also the influence of social and economic history that has catalyzed a serious historical interest in the role of animals in past societies, an interest encompassing both their exploitation and their socioeconomic significance.

Introductory Works

The work of Keith Thomas (Thomas 1983) is indicative of the trend since the late 20th century to consider human attitudes toward the natural world as a proper subject for historical investigation, and his writings demonstrate the maturity of a now well-established historiographical tradition of challenging the anthropocentric nature of the discipline. More recently, a call has been issued for a “sensory history,” one that tries to comprehend the perspective of the animals and to consider their agency not simply at a macrolevel but also in the nature of individual relationships between human and animal. Swart 2010 is a provocative example that should particularly commend itself to military historians, since it takes the Second South African War as a case study. On the whole, however, military history, as a subdiscipline, has been little affected by the changing status of animals within the broader historiography. However, by taking an interdisciplinary approach—one that embraces not just history but also anthropology, archaeology, and even experimental psychology—it is possible to identify an extensive corpus of literature that provides a foundation of knowledge on which it should prove possible to write animals into military history. Inevitably, some works included here relate to the more conventional concerns of the military historian; namely, operations, tactics, and campaign and unit histories, particularly those involving the cavalry arm. Yet, such texts have been included only if the animal in question is central to the analysis, such as in a study of remount services or if a specific debate exists about the battlefield use of animals, such as that concerning horse cavalry in the ancient world or in the 20th century. Other than that, an inclusive approach has been taken to do justice to a subject of great, if often-overlooked, significance: as “beasts of burden” or as mounts for warriors, animals have been essential to the building of empires, and, as conveyors of invaders or even as vectors of disease in wartime, they have brought them crashing down, too. The military exploitation of animals, especially the horse, beyond its role in political state formation, has affected whole societies in shaping social hierarchies, transforming economic activities, and profoundly influencing ritual, symbolic, and cultural values. Where relevant, this article has addressed this wider context for a fuller understanding of the relationship between animals and human military activity.

  • Swart, Sandra. “‘The World the Horses Made’: A South African Case Study of Writing Animals into Social History.” International Review of Social History 55.2 (2010): 241–263.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020859010000192

    This essay challenges historians to engage with the lives of animals, not only by chronicling their exploitation but also by recognizing their agency in shaping human history. It draws on examples primarily from the Second South African War (1899–1902).

  • Thomas, Keith. Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 1500–1800. London: Allen Lane, 1983.

    In this seminal study, Thomas charts how some came to question the anthropocentric attitudes that had underpinned humankind’s assumption of untrammeled mastery over the natural world.

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