Tales of Amazing Animal Heroes

With the release of a new book about heroic animals, we discover that man’s best friend comes in all shapes and sizes

It’s time to talk about the elephant in the room. Lizzie the elephant that is. The story of this helpful giant, who carted steel around Sheffield for use in World War I when all the horses were at war, is just one of many in Tales of Amazing Animal Heroes: Real Life Stories of Animal Bravery. Released by Puffin, with help from experts at the Imperial War Museum, the book goes into detail about some exceptional critters that have gone above and beyond in human conflicts to help, save and comfort people in need. Unsurprisingly, some of these brave beasts even received the PDSA Dickin Medal, which, a bit like the Victoria Cross, is the highest an animal can be awarded.

A touching foreword by former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo introduces us to the reasons behind the involvement of animals in war and how it affects us as humans – not just physically, but emotionally too. “What interests me in all my books about animals, and animals in war,” he writes, “is the friendship between us. How we rely on one another.”

Wojtek, courtesy of Imperial War Museums © IWM (HU 16546)

Wojtek, courtesy of Imperial War Museums © IWM (HU 16546)

Take the tale of Wojtek, an orphaned bear cub that owed his life to the Polish soldiers who adopted him in 1942. They were making the long trip home from Russia, where they’d been detained as POWs after the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany occupied Poland. The soldiers fed and cared for the bear, which kept their spirits up, and he grew to over 200kg. By the time they reached Egypt, instead of continuing on, man and bear trained to fight for the allied forces and were posted to Italy to battle the Nazis – Wojtek lugging ammunition throughout. After the war, the soldiers couldn’t immediately return to Poland and settled in Scotland, where Wojtek remained, spending his final days at Edinburgh Zoo.

Similarly adored by his comrades was Warrior, a horse from the Isle of Wight that served in WWI with his owner Jack Seely. Warrior survived the entirety of the Battle of the Somme, he faced down the Germans at Moreuil Wood and cheated death on more than one occasion – the worst being when a shell exploded nearby and buried him beneath tons of mud. So renowned was Warrior for his resilience and fearless work that when he eventually passed away, aged 33 in 1941, The Times ran his obituary.


This collection of 34 narratives about courageous creatures ranges from Bucephalus, horse of Alexander the Great, through countless 20th-century war heroes, to recent saviours, such as Roselle the guide dog who rescued her owner before the North Tower collapsed during 9/11 and Aramis the drone-destroying eagle. Each chapter is accompanied colourfully by images from five different illustrators and recounted in an easily digestible manner by author Mike Unwin.

To celebrate the launch of Tales of Amazing Animal Heroes, IWM is hosting free half-term events in London and Manchester, at which families can hear directly from the experts and sit in on an interactive storytelling adventure. So you can learn just how loyal dogs, horses, bears, elephants and more have helped us humans in times of trouble throughout history.

By Danielle Goldstein

Header image: Warrior illustration © Hannah Peck, 2019

Tales of Amazing Animal Heroes is out Thursday 10 October and the Animals in Conflict events will be at IWM London (19-20 Oct) and Manchester (26-27 Oct). For info see iwm.org.uk or the JR listings.

This article also appears in the Oct 2019 issue of JR.