Arms and the cat

Richard, one of our volunteers, has been looking into war memorials to cats.

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Animals such as horses and elephants have been pressed into military service since classical times, and also used have been dogs, camels, oxen, mules, donkeys, pigeons and various other ‘humble beasts ‘.

Of the animal memorials on the UKNIWM database, those to horses, as might have been expected, lead by a short head over all other species put together. Cats by comparison do not feature large in military history, although there is a relief of one on the Animals in War memorial in London. One reason is that the territorial nature of these enigmatic creatures does not lend itself to life with an army on the move: the English nurse Elsie Knocker had a cat in the front line in Belgium in the First World War, but they stayed in the same place, while the tabby Crimean Tom, rescued from the ruins of Sevastapol and brought to England does not seem to have joined the military. Attempts by the American military in Vietnam to use the ability of cats to see in the dark were a predictable failure owing to their inclination to follow their own concerns rather than anyone else’s.

Diesel and Garfield, ship's cats, HMS BelfastAlthough cats generally are not keen on water, they have made ships their territory for centuries, and in times of conflict their service with the Royal Navy was especially valuable both for their ancient role of rodent control and as a contributor to the morale of the crews. However in 1975 because of fears about rabies the Admiralty banned cats on RN vessels, although some were allowed to continue their service ashore.

The most notable naval cat was Simon, wounded several times during the Yangtse Incident in 1949, while serving on HMS Amethyst. He became the only feline recipient of the Dickin Medal (the animals’ VC), but died before it could be bestowed, weakened by his injuries, while in quarantine at Hackbridge later in the year. In April the following year Lieutenant Geoffrey Weston, RN, unveiled a tablet  at the PDSA Veterinary Centre, Plymouth, with a relief of a cat’s head and the following inscription.

 ‘SIMON, D.M./ 31st JULY 1949/ H.M.S. AMETHYST/ THROUGHOUT THE/ YANGTSE INCIDENT/ HIS BEHAVIOUR WAS OF THE/ HIGHEST ORDER ‘.

Lt Weston had himself been wounded in the Incident and had commanded the vessel following the death of its Captain until the arrival of Commander Kerans, who effected its escape to freedom. Simon was buried at the PDSA Animal Cemetery at Ilford (recently awarded a National  Lottery grant of £49000 for refurbishment) and his headstone has a similar inscription. 

Recently it has been found that there is another memorial to Simon at the China Fleet Country Club at Saltash in Cornwall.

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