ON his recent state visit to London, President Michael D. Higgins presented a shiny new red coat to Domhnall of Shantamon, the Irish wolfhound mascot of the Irish Guards.
The significance of the coat dates back to the First World War when soldiers from the Irish Guards discovered a wolfhound shivering in a trench. They had a spare coat that they put on the dog, but it was never returned.
Dogs were used in the war zone as guards, to carry messages and for search and rescue. One of these dogs, an Irish wolfhound called Bally Shannon, had been in training for Dublin’s police force in the autumn of 1916 when his master, a British officer, took him to the war front in France – not as a mascot but as a dog-of-war, working in the mud and slush of the trenches.
“Bally took to the life like a true Irishman,” said the New York Sun, “the harder the knocks, the more desperate the fighting, the better he liked it.”
Under cover of darkness, he would accompany wiring parties that crept into No-Man’s-Land, carrying reels of barbed wire to protect the trenches. But Bally Shannon’s main role was as a Red Cross dog and an ambulance helper, transporting first aid dressings and pulling the wounded to safety.
Over the course of the war he saved 10 wounded men by dragging them out of No-Man’s-Land. His exploits became famous the world over. New Zealand’s Ashburton Guardian reported that when his regiment was ordered to Ypres, Bally was “the happiest and lightest-hearted member”.
In his first action, a heavy cannon was thrown off its carriage and rolled onto him. A nun took an X-ray of his ribs but none were broken, and he was soon on the mend.
However, in April 1917 at Brimont, a single shell shattered his master’s arm and wounded Bally in the left shoulder. In hospital the dog stayed by his master’s side, day and night.
The French magazine Le Miroir, on June 17 1917, featured soldier and dog on its front cover, and stated: “The same nurse treats both of them each day.”
Next month, they were sent home to Ireland on a hospital ship. But Bally’s worst adventure was still to come. Off the coast of Ireland they were torpedoed by a German submarine.
The ship went down with nearly all on board, but there were four survivors – Bally, his master and two other men – one a New York Irishman named Maloney. The men found refuge on a piece of wreckage but there was no room for Bally, as his great weight (170 lbs) would have sunk the raft. The dog attempted to get aboard, but was gently turned away by his master.
From time to time he came close and rested his head and forepaws on the edge of the raft before continuing to paddle in the dark and the cold.
When daylight came, they were rescued but the officer succumbed to his wounds. With Bally it was touch and go: “The acid of the sea water had eaten deep into his body and seared his coat of wire hair from white to a dirty, burnt yellow” reported Country Life magazine. But as each day passed he gradually regained his strength.
Maloney was so taken by Bally’s courage that he adopted him as his own, and brought him to New York to recuperate fully.
He took the dog to meet Tom Hoey, a shepherd who worked in Central Park. Bally helped guard the sheep that cropped the grass there – pretty tame work after the dangers of the battlefield.
Until then, an Airedale called Lady Dale had assisted Hoey. When she saw Bally we are told it was “love at first sight”.
Dog-lover Walter A.Dyer visited Bally in New York: “I spoke his name. He came to the edge of the enclosure and raised himself to his full height, resting his forepaws on the top of the fence.
“I had never seen so magnificent an animal. All sinew and brawn, powerful, built on lines of speed. I looked into his eyes – great, honest, intelligent eyes, utterly human. I saw in those eyes the devotion and unquestioning courage that had upheld him that dark night in the water.”
Maloney paid Hoey to feed him well and give him medicines. With such care, not to mention the attentions of Lady Dale, Bally ought to have been living in doggy paradise. But Bally Shannon was not happy.
“The dog’s that restless at times,” said Hoey, “that I fair believe he wants to be going back to the wars.”