Picture of a British soldier playing with a kitten in the snow, December 17, 1917

This is a photograph from World War I, the Great War. It was taken by John Warwick Brooke (Lieutenant). It is a black-and-white colourised photograph. It was colourised by Colourising History (aka /u/DBColour). Below it is the original black and white photo. It shows a British soldier perhaps of the Army Service Corps ‘shaking hands’ with a kitten on a snowy bank at Neulette, northern France, on 17 December 1917. Someone (the colouriser?) added the snowflakes which I am not sure was a good idea as it somewhat obscures the interaction between soldier and cat. The kitten is a ginger tabby-and-white and almost certainly male.

Strangely, I bumped into a similar image a day or two earlier. Here it is:

Captive Turkish soldiers sharing their pieces of bread with a stray cat. Balkan Wars 1912
Captive Turkish soldiers sharing their pieces of bread with a stray cat. Balkan Wars 1912

Some information about cats in WWI

It is said that there were an estimated half a million domestic cats living and wandering up and down the trench systems that ran along the Western Front of World War I. They were working cats primarily. The job was to keep down the rodent population. You can imagine how rat infested those trenches were. But they also provided companionship and entertainment to the troops. They were a bright spark in a grim environment.

Sometimes they served as a mascot for a unit. The troops would share their rations with a ‘trench cat’. No doubt these were homeless cats, made homeless by the war. They found their way towards people for food and support and this happened to be the trenches or support facilities in the rear.

It’s also said that trench cats provided an early warning system for toxic gases used against the allies. The gases were almost odourless and invisible. The cats were more sensitive to the presence of gas and therefore warned the soldiers allowing them to put on their gas masks. No doubt many cats were killed by these gases.

It’s also said that trench cats were used to carry messages to the enemy across no man’s land. They put messages around the collars. The cats were able to traverse no man’s land. I’m not sure how they would have achieved it because it seems to me that it would have been unlikely that cats would want to wonder away from the trench that they called their home to a strange place hundreds of yards away. One cat, Felix, was caught carrying a message by the French. He or she was executed by firing squad.

WWI cat and soldier in the trenches. Photo in the public domain.
WWI cat and soldier in the trenches. Photo in the public domain.

You can imagine that under these dire conditions, some very close friendships were formed between cat and soldier. One example is that of a Belgian officer and scout, Lt. Lekeux of the 3rd Regiment of Artillery, who found a litter of kittens. Their mother had been killed. He nursed the kittens. One of them survived and he named that cat Pitoutchi. They were bonded and it seems that the officer was imprinted on the cat as his mother.

On one occasion the officer was surrounded by German troops when he was in an artillery crater where he had sought cover. He was trapped. Pitoutchi dashed out of the crater. The Germans saw the kitten and opened fire. Pitoutchi reflexes saved him. The Germans decided that the noise that they had heard was due to the kitten and not to the kitten’s caregiver and stopped their search. This gave Lekeux a window of opportunity to escape.

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