Innocent Heroes: Stories of Animals in the First World War

Written by Sigmund Brouwer
Review by Val Adolph

This unique book tells the story of three men in a fictional Canadian platoon during the First World War, leading up to the battle of Vimy Ridge. Alongside them are the animals and birds that provide both emotional and practical support. Horses and mules carry armaments to the front lines; dogs carry medical supplies to the wounded in no-man’s-land; cats catch the inevitable rats in the trenches (sometimes as many as 20 apiece each night). Homing pigeons carry messages through the flak from enemy guns, and canaries warn of poison gas attacks.

In addition to the tales of animals, each based on factual records, are depictions of the men, including their camaraderie and the hardships faced by native soldiers after the war. Among the pages, separated from the main plotlines, are brief, easy-to-read sections with facts about the war, life in the trenches, and military strategies that made the attack on Vimy Ridge successful.

Written by a bestselling author in conjunction with students from a Grade 9 class in a small prairie town, this is one of the most unusual books I have read. The stories of animals moved me to tears and reminded me of the touching memorial in London to the animals killed in our wars. In one relatively short book, Brouwer accomplishes three important goals: he vividly portrays different animals’ wartime contributions, he provides details on the war itself and soldiers’ lives, and he concludes with a quick look at social injustices of the time. He entertains, educates, and touches the emotions.