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Leigh Hatts

The Animals' War at the Imperial War Museum

Cats, dogs, horses and even pigeons feature in the Animals' War exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. It is a story of enormous ingenuity, British affection for animals and sadness.

The exhibition opens with a horse depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry carrying a dying soldier. Also there is a reproduction of Lady Butler's famous painting of the Charge of the Light Brigade which is placed alongside a clip from the film of the same name.

Horses were in use in war until very recently. There is a handwritten letter from Buckingham Palace awarding a medal to a horse called Freddy who had served in the Boer War. A photograph shows non-British cavalry in Afghanistan in 1996. Another picture shows the Household Cavalry's Sefton who was hit by 28 pieces of shrapnel in Hyde Park during an IRA attack in 1982 and recovered.

A painting by G Benson is called just Simpson and his donkey ANZAC 1916. John Simpson Kirkpatrick, known to many Australians as 'the man and his donkey', saved hundreds of lives by carrying injured soldiers on his donkey. Today even Young Australians all over world rise early on ANZAC Day to recall the terrible First World War conflict.

So important were animals at the beginning of the twentieth century that European battlegrounds had not only Red Cross posts but also Blue Cross facilities for horses.

Pigeons brought vital messages whilst trained giant rats spotted hidden bombs.

The stuffed exhibits include the War Office cat, regimental mascots and even a pig rescued from a German warship.

In Northern Ireland in the 1970s it was possible for a soldier to recall his regimental dog and say: "He was like an oasis of friendship in a desert of sadness."

The Animals' War is at the Imperial War Museum daily until Sunday 22 April; admission 6 (conc 4).

• Published in association with the exhibition is The Animals' War by Juliet Gardner with a foreword by Jilly Cooper (Portrait 25).

• Also in association with the IWM exhibition is a children's book called Animals at War published in the Usborne Young Reading Series (4.99). Among animals featured are Beauty the London Blitz search dog and Gander the guard dog who gave her life to save her regiment.

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