Whitianga's Purple Poppy Man

06 Jul 2021

Although former Army captain, Bruce Page, admits that the only pets he ever owned were domestic cats, he has a huge affection and respect for animals that served in theatres of combat around the world.

Bruce, 66, who lives in Whitianga, is the New Zealand representative for the Australia War Animal Memorial Organisation (AWAMO) which was instrumental in a permanent memorial to military animals being erected at the New Zealand Army’s national museum at Waiouru in 2018.

And just as Poppy Day in April marks the human sacrifice in war with a red poppy, New Zealand established a Purple Poppy Day for animals on 24 February each year. It is a tradition which has now been taken up with enthusiasm in Australia, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, India and France.

Bruce says AWAMO was set up by an Australian friend, Nigel Allsopp, whom he met while serving as an engineer at Whenuapai, with the rank of flight lieutenant, before transferring to the Army as a captain. “It is about commemorating the animals that were used in war and providing memorials to their service,” he said. “There is a whole mixture of animals that were used, from horses, donkeys and mules to camels, dogs and pigeons. And most of the units had a mascot of some sort - it could be anything from a goat to a cat or a rat, or anything.”

Bruce said that in World War I horses were undoubtedly the most important animal for the ANZACs in the campaigns in Europe, the Mediterranean and Egypt, both for the cavalry and for transport, along with the mules and donkeys.

Around 10,000 horses were sent from New Zealand but only four returned. Many were killed in battle while others were left behind because of quarantine restrictions back home. In many cases they were put down by their handlers who feared the animals would be mistreated by the locals after the troops pulled out. “It was considered just too difficult to bring them back,” said Bruce.

One of the enduring ANZAC images from WWI was the painting by Horace Moore-Jones of Simpson and his DonkeyBut without wishing to start a new pavlova conflict with Australia, Bruce said many old New Zealand soldiers believed that it was actually a painting of a Kiwi soldier and not an Australian digger, as the Australians believe.

Bruce is also the New Zealand representative for the Blue Cross, a British animal welfare group (founded in 1897 as Our Dumb Friends League) which provides blue crosses for war animals. 

Three New Zealand animals have received the medal - Ceasar, a WW1 dog whose name was apparently misspelled, Bess, one of the four horses to return from Europe at the end of WWI and an Afghan dog which was adopted as a mascot by New Zealand troops during their tours of duty in Afghanistan. “He wasn’t just their mascot, he acted as a sort of guard or look-out for the troops as well,” Bruce said.

Approximately nine million animals died in WWI and Bruce said that their unbreakable bond with the soldiers and their sacrifice needed to be honoured. He noted that although the horse was the prime animal for the Kiwi Mounted Riflemen in the deserts of the Middle East, their fight could not have been carried out without the support of mules, donkeys and camels as well.

More than 400 New Zealanders served in the Imperial Camel Corps, who needed to be skilled in dealing with such irritable beasts.

While horses and camels no longer form part of the New Zealand Defence Force’s logistical resources, dogs were increasingly being used for a variety of functions. “Currently within the NZDF the use of animals, in fact, is on the increase as opposed to decline,” Bruce said. “This is primarily due to military working dogs and specialist explosive search dogs being used to combat terrorist activities in both homeland defence and international operations.

The Air Force had just built a brand-new facility at Whenuapai for training dogs for search, track and attack in order to protect military assets, including the country’s new 737 Poseidon coastal patrol planes. “If a person resists, then the dogs are let loose,” Bruce said. “The Romans used dogs in battle against their enemy. It is not quite like Shakespeare’s ‘Cry havoc! And let slip the dogs of war’, but these dogs being trained at Whenuapai will attack and bite.”

Bruce said that AWAMO raised money for memorials by selling pins and other memorabilia, but in recent years the women’s section of the Returned Servicemen’s  Association had taken up the baton to honour animals who had served with the armed forces. “They have definitely taken it up in a big way, which I think is wonderful,” he said.

The RSA women’s section and AWAMO also support post-traumatic stress disorder in ex-servicesmen and dogs play a huge role in that work. “Their companionship is regarded as a wonderful therapeutic support for the ex-soldiers,” Bruce said.

Pictured: Former Army captain, Bruce Page, the New Zealand representative for the Australian War Animal Memorial Organisation, at Waiouru in 2018.