Australia’s Great War dog hero – Digger - awarded the VC of animals
One of Australia’s Great War heroes, Digger the dog, has been posthumously recognised for his outstanding service to his country.
Digger - a bulldog-cross who served for three and a half years at Gallipoli and the Western Front in World War 1 - is the first of two Australian animal recipients of the prestigious Blue Cross, which is the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross, and awarded by the UK-based Blue Cross animal charity, founded in 1897.
The other medal has been awarded to Bill the Bastard, a feisty horse which also saw action at Gallipoli running the gauntlet of gunfire, and again with the famous Australian Light Horse in the Battle of Romani, where Bill carried five wounded troopers from the battlefield to safety.
Digger’s Blue Cross medal for valour was presented to the family of his handler, First Company Signalman, Sergeant Harold Martin, a formal service at the West Croydon Kilkenny RSL club today.
While researching a story to commemorate the ANZAC centenary in 2015, SA-BEST MLC, Frank Pangallo, stumbled on to Digger’s incredible feats of bravery and he became the feature of an award-winning TV segment.
“I was immediately fascinated and touched by this unique, unbreakable bond that developed between a man and his dog in the most horrific theatres of World War 1,” said Frank.
“Both were wounded in battle and were physically and psychologically scarred by their ordeal. It is a narrative of war that continues even to this day with conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Sergeant Harold Martin was a signalman with the First Division Signal company and was the very first South Australian to volunteer for WW1 in 1914.
Digger was a stray who followed Sergeant Martin and a group of fellow soldiers back to their barracks in Williamstown, Victoria, and became their mascot.
They smuggled Digger aboard the troop ship, Carew, bound for Egypt and onto Gallipoli.
On 25 April 1915 at 6 am, Digger and the men from the First Coy were among the very first to land on ANZAC Cove.
As the ANZACS dug in for the nine-month campaign, Digger did his part, running messages through the trenches as well as going over the top in the line of fire to check on the wounded or ferry food and medical supplies.
At the battle of Lone Pine, a bullet shattered Digger’s jaw and it had to be removed while under chloroform. He was also shot in one eye.
After the ANZACs withdrew, Digger accompanied Sgt Martin to the Western Front at Pozieres and Ypres where they suffered mustard poisoning.
A now famous postcard of Digger was sold to raise money for his medical treatment.
Digger was the last animal allowed to return to Australia and was given a silver collar with his service medals.
He often proudly marched with Sgt Martin and his unit in fundraising parades, the last time in Sydney on Empire Day on an unknown date.
That evening Digger was spooked by fireworks thinking he was back in battle and hurt himself trying to jump a fence.
He managed to crawl back to Sgt Martin’s room where he died at the foot of his bed - loyal to his last breath.
Digger’s hide was tanned and is at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra along with his silver collar of service medals.
Sgt Martin – who lost two brothers and a sister in active service - returned to Adelaide where he married Frances, a girl he met in Britain.
Like so many WW1 veterans, he battled PTSD in silence and had one functioning lung because of mustard gas poisoning suffered during the war. He died in 1963 aged 71.
His grandson, Rex Hoskin, says his family is extremely proud of his exemplary service and that of Digger, who has also been immortalised in a striking memorial unveiled a year ago on the front lawn of the West Croydon Kilkenny RSL club, where an annual ANZAC service is held.
Digger is also honoured with a statue at Pozieres, France where locals still re-enact Digger’s exploits using a lookalike bulldog.
Nigel Allsop - whose Australian War Animal Memorial Organisation is dedicated to recognising the efforts of war animals through Australia’s military history - said war animals demonstrated true valour and an enduring partnership with humans.
From 2019, Australia has designated February 24 as National Purple Poppy Day, joining the UK, NZ and the US who have set aside days commemorate their war animals.