Who was Sergeant Stubby?
Nobody knows exactly when the dog later known as Sergeant Stubby was born, but it is thought to have been during the first half of the First World War. He was a dog of uncertain breed, described in early news stories as either a Bull Terrier or Boston Terrier, with a short stature, barrel shape and friendly temperament. Until 1917 it is thought that he wandered the streets of New Haven, Connecticut scrounging for scraps of food. But he was no ordinary stray: just a few years later – following the end of the First World War – the tenacious canine had become known as the most decorated dog in American history.
The dog’s fortunes changed in July 1917 when he began hanging around a group of soldiers, members of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, as they trained in the grounds of Yale University. One of the men, a 25-year-old private named Robert Conroy, took a shining to the young dog and began to take care of him, naming him ‘Stubby’ for his stature and tail.
Although the US military didn’t yet have an official ‘military working dog’ programme, Stubby’s instincts and charm made him a firm favourite with the men of the regiment, who taught him how to raise his paw ‘in salute’. By the time the unit had left for France, Private Conroy had become so devoted to his new furry friend that he stowed him on the ship. When a commanding officer discovered Stubby’s presence, the dog responded by saluting him. The officer was reportedly rendered speechless by the gesture, and the incident secured Stubby’s place as the official mascot of the Yankee division.
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Stubby was involved in many battles while stationed overseas, including the second battle of Marne (July 1918) and the battle of Chateau-Thierry (July 1918). His sharp ears and ability to hear the whine of artillery shells before they landed were extremely useful, and Stubby was particularly helpful in locating wounded soldiers in no man’s land. His sense of smell, too, meant that he could readily detect mustard gas attacks: he once saved an entire company by alerting the men to don their gas masks. He was present for four offensives and 17 battles in total, serving for around 18 months.
One of Stubby’s greatest recorded achievements occurred late one night on the western front. The incident was later relayed in Stubby’s half-page obituary in the New York Times:
“In the Chemin des Dames, Stubby captured a German spy and saved a doughboy [slang for a United States infantryman] from a gas attack. Hearing a sound in the stillness of the night, the dog, who guarded sleeplessly, stole out of the trenches and recognized–a German. Attempts by the German to deceive the dog were futile. Seizing his prisoner by the breeches, Stubby held on until help arrived.”
Alerted by the commotion, Stubby’s fellow soldiers were then able to capture and imprison the spy. For his efforts that night, Stubby was issued an Iron Cross medal that had originally been given to the German spy. The obituary (in full here) was given a great deal more column space than many other notable people of the time.
Following the war, Stubby returned home to America. He was honoured with a medal for heroism from the Humane Education Society – an animal protection organisation – and met with presidents Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge and Warren G Harding. After the war, he went on to become the mascot for a sports team at Georgetown University, Washington DC, where Conroy studied law, and was given the unofficial rank of sergeant – a rank higher than that of his master. In 1926, Stubby died at home, reportedly in Conroy’s arms.
Stubby’s story remained relatively untold until recently, when he was immortalised in a new animated film. Featuring the voices of Helena Bonham Carter and Gérard Depardieu, Sgt Stubby recounts Stubby’s heroic journey from a stray on the streets to becoming the most decorated dog in military history. To coincide with its release, we caught up with the film’s director Richard Lanni:
Q: Tell us a bit about Sergeant Stubby; how did you come across his story and why did you want to make a film about him?
A: I came across Stubby while working on a series of history documentaries about the American experience of the First World War. I realised immediately that Stubby was a fantastic potential conduit to bring history alive to children: he was an amazingly inspirational character for a little dog, and children relate to animals. Although his story is theoretically an American one, the First World War was something we were all involved in and can relate to.
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Q: Can you tell us some of the moments in the film that are based on or inspired by real events?
A: Most of the film – I’d say 90 per cent of it – is based on real events. Stubby did catch a German spy; he was taught to salute; he did go out into no-man’s land, locate the wounded and bring out the stretcher bearers; he did nurse Robert Conroy through the Spanish flu; and he did get seriously wounded and go AWOL for a month before turning up back at camp. Whether he met George Patton [the famed US military commander who led troops in the First and Second World War] is up for debate, but we do know they were once in the same place at the same time. On this matter, we took the view: why not?
Having said that, we did have to amalgamate a lot of events for the purpose of telling a story and use some artistic license. We couldn’t follow Stubby chronologically through four campaigns and 17 battles, for example. That would take hours! But on the whole, most of the elements relating to Stubby are true.
Q: Was it a challenge to make a children’s film with historical integrity?
A: The problem we faced was this: how do we tell a family film about one of the worst events in modern history? The answer came in the book Once There Was a War, a collection of articles by John Steinbeck, who was a war correspondent during the Second World War. As I was reading the book, I got the impression that the real horror of the war was happening ‘off camera’. I realised that this was how we needed to approach a film about Stubby: we needed to be conscious of the fact that we’re in a war, but focus the little ones’ attention on the dog. It was a real challenge, but we tried to be as sensitive as possible.
I also don’t believe that entertainment and education have to be mutually exclusive: it’s all about how information is presented. Stubby was an amazing opportunity to bring some of the realities of history to children in an age-appropriate way.
Q: As we approach the centenary of the end of the First World War, are we in danger of forgetting the conflict?
A: I think so. It happened 100 years ago and people live very busy lives today. Many people don’t know that much about the war, particularly in America where people were perhaps less directly affected compared to those in Europe.
I think that Stubby – in his own little way – can really play a part in stopping people from forgetting. I look at audience comments from our US viewers, for example, and they say that children wanted to know more about the First World War after watching the film.
We do need to find ways to help prevent history from being lost, particularly as new generations come and go. Lest we forget.
This article was first published on HistoryExtra in September 2018