September 11, 2015 | Posted in War Dogs
Rags was a mixed breed terrier that began life on the streets on Paris in 1916 and died on 22nd March 1936 in Washington D.C. He lies buried at the Aspen Hill memorial park and animal sanctuary in Silver Spring, Maryland.
In the intervening years, he lived a life of adventure and accomplished deeds of bravery on the war front, so much that his fame as one of the finest war dogs is well-deserved and assured.
The feisty terrier’s path to glory began the day he was found on the streets of Montmartre, Paris by Private James Donovan of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division. This happened in 1918, the Great War was raging all over Europe.
Donovan, who was to be the dog’s first owner and trainer, named him thus because the dog resembled a pile of rags when Donovan first saw him. Donovan was with the Signal Corps and before long dog and master were sent to the front, where Donovan was to lay communication lines. The 2nd Battle of the Marne, from July 18th to August 6th, was raging and Rags had already become the official canine mascot of the 1st Infantry Division.
Donovan’s job was, to say the least, hazardous. He had to string communication wires so that the advance columns could stay in touch with the rear. In the event of wires being damaged, runners were used. This tribe, if anything, ran a bigger risk than the wire layers. Deaths on job from enemy bullets, and shells were common. Donovan trained Rags to carry messages to and from the suporting artillery – the 7th Field Artillery Brigade. Rags proved to be an able student and quickly learnt to carry dispatches guided by the sound of the American cannons.
During the above-mentioned battle, Rags and his handler, along with some 40 soldiers were cut off from their lines and surrounded on all sides by the Germans. Unless reinforcements and artillery cover was provided quickly, annihilation was certain. Rags evaded the Germans, slipping through barbed wires and negotiating the shell holes till he reached the 7th Field Artillery base to deliver a message requesting urgent help. The stranded soldiers were rescued from the face of certain death and the group had no hesitation in crediting Rags for it.
While spending time with the soldiers on the front, Rags learnt how to salute and his canine salute became quite famous, he would join in with the soldiers to acknowledge superiors and even during his post active military-career days, during retreat ceremonies he would be at the flag pole raising his paw in salute.
As with most military dogs, Rags served as an early-warning system for approaching enemy shells. He had observed soldiers flattening themselves on the ground upon the sound of shells approaching and before long he was doing the same. But in his case, he would end up flat on his back with his legs extended long before human ears would pick up the distinctive whistling approach of the shells.
Rags’s lasting reputation and fame rest on his deeds during the last days of the war, when some of the fiercest fighting occurred. This also happened to be the final American offensive in the war and is known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Rags ran many missions carrying messages during the length of this campaign which lasted from September 26th till November 11th 1918. On the 9th of October, Rags ran the most dangerous gauntlet of his life. While carrying messages, he had to run through exploding shells of mustard gas and cannon. He survived the ordeal and delivered the message but in the process lost permanent use of his right eye and right ear. His handler Donovan too suffered lung damage from the poisonous gas; both man and animal were repatriated to the U.S where Donovan succumbed to his injuries at the Fort Sheridan Base Hospital in Chicago.
Rags was adopted by Major Raymond W. Hardenbergh and his family. His exploits earned him fame beyond military circles. Celebrities would have their photos clicked with Rags; the New York Times ran articles on him and he was also the subject of a book.