Every Australian grows up knowing the story of Simpson and his donkey. He was a First World War stretcher-bearer who, landed in Gallipoli, in 24 days was credited with saving the lives of hundreds of troops, before being mortally wounded himself. The donkey he was using on this day survived, and carried the wounded man on its back to safety.
It’s final fate, however, is unknown. I thought of it standing beside the Animals in War Memorial. It has two bronze mules – carrying a dismantled cannon and heavy boxes of ammunition, trudging through a narrow gap in the Portland stone wall on which are recorded some of the many beasts – from elephants to carrier pigeons – that humans have chosen to use, and abuse, in their attempts to kill other members of their own species.
War is terrifying enough for humans, but animals, which have no choice whatsoever, and which understand danger and fear, if not its causes, it has been pure torture. Often it has been devotion between them and their handlers that has kept them serving their unchosen cause, yet so often humans have failed to recognise efforts and their rights of reward for service.
The Boer War was one of the last conflicts in which horses were used extensively. Many were shipped from Australia and New Zealand; none were brought back. Many had died from the hazards of the journey, and quarantine laws meant that the rest were killed or abandoned when the troops left.
Yet while these depressing thoughts intrude, this is not, as war memorials go, a depressing spot, for walk around the other side of the wall and here is the end of war, a prancing horse and dog, enjoying their freedom.
The memorial is at the Brook Gate of Hyde Park. To its right is the frantic traffic stream of Park Lane, to the left the open spaces of the park, where today’s more pampered companion animals romp and roam.
If you’re looking for somewhere different (and free) to take children in London this would be a good choice; the bronze animals are eminently strokable, the history listen eminently digestible, and the open spaces nearby ideal for burning off a bit of steam.
Link: The BBC’s account of the unveiling of the memorial.