The Unlikely Animals of WWI

(left) Lizzie, an Indian elephant, became a normal fixture in the town of Sheffield during WWI working as a "beast of burden"; (Right) Circuc animals in Horley also had to be utilized as field ploughers due to the scarcity of horses available.
(left) Lizzie, an Indian elephant, became a normal fixture in the town of Sheffield during WWI working as a “beast of burden”; (Right) Circuc animals in Horley also had to be utilized to plough fields due to the scarcity of horses available.

As World War One seethed through for years, British Armed Forces had bought most of the horses and shipped them off to the Western Front leaving farmers and traders to look for substitute beasts of burden. They found the exotic elephants, among others.

For one there was Lizzie.

She once walked dutifully along the cobbled streets of Sheffield, an industrial town those times, and, being an Indian elephant, had looked “out of place”. However, duty was quite important — it was her job to cart munitions, machines and scrap metal around Sheffield, a task which used to be of three horses which had been taken off to war.

Lizzie – as she was popularly known – was really a circus animal, trained to do tricks in front of an audience and was part of a travelling animal exhibit. But when WWI broke out and the lack of horses in the work force became apparent, Lizzie had to be employed as a ‘working animal’, compelled to be a heavy labor aid and was even fitted with a harness so she could be fit to work for scrap metal merchants.

But then, Lizzie’s plight was not uncommon during the war – other exotic animals worked at that time for Britain, too.

The people of Sheffield also used camels, probably from the same menagerie as Lizzie, to pull loads too heavy for them to do. On the other hand, people in Surrey used elephants from a nearby circus in place of the absent horses to plough their fields and carry on stacks of hay.

But were there also exotic animals employed for the war effort? How did the people in rural and industrial Britain see their unconventional co-workers?

The World’s Fair newspaper was the first to write about Lizzie’s presence in Sheffield pointing out that the town’s great lack of carting means was the push that compelled for her to be taken away from Sedgewick’s menagerie into this kind of job.

“Last week it was seen striding along with ease drawing a load of iron to a munition works.

“The weight of the load was equal to that usually allotted to three horses.

“Some passing horses were startled by this unexpected ‘dilution’ of their labour, and sniffed and shied as the elephant passed,” the said newspaper wrote down.

Clare Trowell, a Sheffield amateur historian, author and illustrator, further elaborated on this saying that how the elephant came as a property of Tommy Ward, a  a ship breakers and scrap metal merchant in the city, was unknown.

“By 1916 most of their heavy horses had gone to the front,” she recounted.

She also added:

“Lizzie was an Indian elephant, intelligent and trainable – she would’ve been used to people because she was part of a menagerie.

“She would’ve have been traipsing up and down the streets where people lived, it would’ve been an odd image.

“She was quite a character – there’s a story about her putting her trunk into somebody’s window and stealing their dinner.”

Lizzie’s feet were fitted with special leather boots – her protection against getting cut by the shards of metal rubbish that littered the ground of the scrap metal yard.

There is only little information about what really happened to Lizzie after the war though an expression “done up like Tommy Ward’s elephant” used to refer to somebody carrying something heavy continue to thrive in the area.

Some pieces of evidence also showed the elephant had gone on to work in a farm where the ground was more lenient.

Being farm animals was also the plight of a group of elephants hailing from Horley, a town in Surrey at the height of WWI.

“You grow up thinking elephants are African or Indian animals – so seeing them wandering around Horley in World War One, would’ve been quite a shock.

“They were heavy animals and would have been very useful pulling ploughs and carrying stuff,” said Alan Reid of the Horley History Society.

The said elephants were from the Lord Sanger’s Circus which made the area its base when not travelling around country.

The circus elephants were used to plough fields in Horley and as a means of transporting agricultural bundles from one farm to another.

“They were used for a practical purpose, but it was probably a good bit of publicity for the circus too,” Reid added.

he also recounted that some thirty years ago, a bungalow was built in the place where the animals were kept. While digging the structure’s foundation, builders found what looked like remains of a woolly mammoth. However, it was later confirmed that it was actually that of an elephant.

A WWI poster of the Blue Cross
A WWI poster of the Blue Cross

Approximately 1.2 million horses and mules were used by the British Army throughout WWI and about 484,000 perished from this estimated number. Blue Cross, a British organization focused on the welfare of animals, did fundraising events to treat the beasts involved in the war.

According to Steve Broomfield, the manager of Blue Cross’ Victoria Hospital, it came as no surprise to him that elephants became useful in the WWI era as horses at that time were really scarce so only a few were available.

As his words clearly put it:

“The horse was still the main way of moving things. Most of the field artillery and lighter stuff was all horse drawn – the bulk of heavy lifting was done by horse power.”

He pointed out that horses were more reliable as they did not break down too quickly like the early trucks and were much cheaper and easier to treat when they got sick. However, the downside on the horses’ part was that war life was not an easy life – most of them would have been killed by either shellfire or disease.

“But there’s a war to win and quite frankly we would be using all the tools and equipment we had to hand, including elephants,” Broomfield added.