DEAD COW FARM by ROBERT GRAVES
An ancient saga tells us how
In the beginning the First Cow
(For nothing living yet had birth
But elemental Cow on Earth)
Began to lick cold stones and mud:
Under her warm tongue flesh and blood
Blossomed, a miracle to believe;
And so was Adam born, and Eve.
Here now is chaos once again,
Primaeval mud, cold stones and rain.
Here flesh decays and blood drips red
And the Cow’s dead, the old Cow’s dead.
That poem, by the classicist and poet Robert Graves, describes one of the strange and more horrifying geographic features of the battlefield: dead and wounded animals. A location noted as Dead Cow farm lay on the line of battlefield at Festubert, and witnessed an attack by the British First Army in 1915 across the farmyard. One need not imagine how such places (and there was almost certainly more than one) got their name.
The sights as dead and dying farm animals, intentionally killed by the soldiery, caught up in the way of battle, or killed while in the service of the armies, forms one of the more hellish aspects of the battlefield. Especially in the age before mass automotive transport, horses formed the primary means of drawing artillery, as well as mounting the cavalry, and in combat and under the strain of the march they often died like flies. The horror of dead horses littering the fields of the Trostle Farm at Gettysburg comes to mind; the vicious fight in the Union center raged across the yard of the Trostle house on July 2nd 1863, and the Trostle family returned after the battle ended to find at least 16 dead Artillery Horses in the field in front of their house.
Such scenes of dead animals, to say nothing of the accounts of the noises made by dead and injured animals adding to the cries of the wounded men, turns the battlefield into a true picture of hell. The necessities of war often leaves animals unattended and abandoned, and conflict often leads them to be slaughtered simply to deny their service to an enemy, or to make war on or punish local populations as a form of cultural or economic warfare. Communities that rely on these animals can ill afford them to be stolen or killed, and often become secondary victims of the animal’s death.
Sometimes the sheer horror of war visited upon animals, mere innocent victims of conflict, is some of the most vivid. This scene (in Hebrew) from Waltz With Bashir describes of the trauma of a war photographer who ran out of film when he found the dying horses in the Beirut Hippodrome, abandoned during the Lebanon War of 1982:
The popularity of War Horse notwithstanding, the suffering of animals in wartime is often ill realized, and is one of the more unfathomable cruelties of war and one of its least palatable incarnations. The efforts made to rescue the zoo animals in Baghdad may give us some hope, but the animal casualties of war are many and their suffering often is some of the most cruel and most pointless.