Rags: Hero of World War I
With rows of small tombstones and a few statues, Aspen Hill Memorial Park is, as far as I know, the first graveyard for pets in the United States. Opened in 1920, it is the final resting place of many dogs and cats, but a few other creatures as well -- parrots, horses, and a few exotic animals. A few of the graves are the final resting spot of some fairly famous animals.
One famous Aspen Hill resident is "General Grant Forbush of RKO," better known as Jiggs, the ring-eyed Pit Bull terrier in the "Our Gang" comedies. It's not clear how this Hollywood star came to rest at Aspen Hill.
The most notable grave at Aspen Hill is that of "Rags," a mixed-breed terrier whose simple gravestone reads "War Hero, First Division Mascot." That simple inscription hardly begins to tell the tale, however.
Rags' story begins on July 14, 1918, when a battalion of the American 1st Infantry Division took part in Bastille Day ceremonies in Paris. One of the participants was Private James Donovan, a Signal Corps specialist, who got drunk and over-stayed his time in the city.
While lost in a cul-de-sac in the dark streets of Montmartre, Donovan stumbled over what appeared to be a pile of rags, but one that emitted a whimper and small bark. When Donovan examined the bundle, he found a small dog inside. Just as he was trying to figure out what to do with the pup, three MP's arrived on the scene, and they quickly figured out that Donovan was A.W.O.L.
Thinking quickly, Donovan convinced the MP's that the little terrier he had just found was the missing mascot of the 1st Division, and that he was part of a search party that had been sent to look for it. The gambit paid off, and "Rags" and Donovan were sent back to the 1st Division.
Back at their unit, Donovan's commanding officer allowed him to keep the little dog. Within just two weeks Donovan and Rags were sent off to the 2nd Battle of the Marne that was waged from July 18th to August 6th, 1918. During this time they were active in the sector from Ville-En-Tardenois to Soissons. Donovan's job was to string communications wire between the advancing infantry units of the 26th Infantry Regiment and the supporting 7th Field Artillery Brigade, and repair the lines when they were damaged by shellfire. When the wires were ripped and shellfire was still incoming, the only way to get messages through the lines was by runner, but the runners had difficulty getting through the miles of barbed wire strung along the trenches, and were frequently killed or wounded while trying to do so.
Donovan began training Rags to carry written notes back to the 7th Field Artillery. Rags was a quick study and soon learned to take messages towards the sound of the American guns.
In late July of 1918, during a counterattack driving towards the Paris-Soissons road, Rags and Donovan found themselves with a group of advancing infantry that had been cut off and surrounded. The only officer surviving was a young lieutenant, and he sent the following message out attached to Rags' collar:
"I have forty-two men, mixed, healthy and wounded. We have advanced to the road but can go no farther. Most of the men are from the 26th Infantry. I am the only officer. Machine guns at our rear, front, right and left. Send infantry officer to take command. I need machine gun ammunition."
Rags was able to slip under the barbed wire, avoid the Germans, and make his way through the shell holes back to the 7th Field Artillery. The message was passed on to headquarters, and a supporting artillery barrage was layed down, and reinforcements sent in, and the cut-off group rescued.
During this same campaign Rags came under enemy shell fire for the first time, and he quickly learned to drop to the ground upon hearing the sound of an incoming shell. The soldiers quickly figured out that Rags could hear the incoming rounds long before they could, and they began to use him as an early warning system.
The soldiers and Rags spent a lot of time together in the trenches, and the young men began to teach Rags a few parlour tricks. One of the first was how to "salute" by sitting up and holding a front paws up close to his head. Rags got very good at this trick, and was soon exchanging "salutes" with important military personnel up and down the line, including Major General Charles P. Summerall, commanding officer of the First Division.
From the 12th of September until the 16th of September Rags and Donovan participated in the first all-American offensive of the war, which was the drive on St. Michel which routed the Germans. Over the course of four days 15,000 Germans soldiers were captured, and during this period Rags learned to greet any grey-uniformed figure with a low growl and a snarl.
The final American campaign of W.W. I , the Meuse-Argonne, lasted from September 26th until November 1918, and during this period Rags was used to take messages across the misty and rugged terrain.
October 9, 1918, Donovan and Rags were in the Argonne Forest and bound in by a thick fog. Since it was impossible to see where the communications lines were cut, Rags was sent back with a message.
Rags had just set off when the Germans began firing mustard gas shells. Rags was was mildly gassed and was also hit in the paw with a splinter from a concussion shell. Rag's right ear was badly mangled by this same shell, and a needle-like sliver of shrapnel was embedded under his right eye. Dazed and confused, Rags was found by an American infantryman who delivered both the dog and the message to the 7th Field Artillery.
Donovan was also severely gassed during this battle, and he too was wounded by shell fire. Like Rags, he was carried back to the rear where dog and owner were reunited. Rags was placed on Donovan's stretcher, and both were given prompt medical attention "on orders from the Division."
Rags had the shell splinters removed from his paw, but he would remain blind in his right eye and deaf in his right ear for the rest of his life. Donovan was not as well off, as his lungs were severely damaged from the mustard gas. Donovan was labeled a priority case, to be shipped home as soon as possible, and Rags was sent home with him.
Donovan and Rags were sent to Fort Sheridan in Chicago, where Rags visited Donovan in his hospital room every day. Soldiers at Fort Sheridan made a special collar tag for Rags identifying him as "1st Division Rags," and he frequently joined the troops at the end of the day as they stood at attention as the flag was lowered.
Donovan showed no improvement, however, and in 1919 he died from the lingering effects of the mustard gas he received in the Argonne Forest.
In the year following Donovan's death, Rags remained at Fort Sheridan as a "post dog." In early 1920, however, Major Raymond W. Hardenberg was transferred to Fort Sheridan along with his wife and two daughters.
Rags was adopted by the Hardenberg daughters, and the 1st Division allowed Rags to move with them to Fort Benning, Georgia. Rags and the Hardenbergs were eventually posted to the Army War College in Washington, D.C., and then to Fort Hamilton in New York.
While in New York, Rags became a small celebrity. In October of 1926 he was a special guest at the Long Island Kennel Club dog show at the 23rd Regiment Armory in Brooklyn. He was awarded a special ribbon recognizing his wartime achievements. A book and a number of newspaper and magazine articles were written about him. A ceremony was held at which Rags "signed" a copy of his biography with an inked paw print, and this "autographed" copy was sent to the British Imperial War Museum in London, to take its place along other official records of the Great War.
In 1928, the 10th Anniversary of the end of the Great War, Rags was a participant at the 1st Division's reunion in New York, taking part in a parade down Broadway, appearing at receptions, and taking part in a battle re-enactment on the parade grounds at Fort Hamilton. The high ranking brass were especially fond of having their photo taken with Rags, including former 1st Division commander Summerall, who was now a four-star general.
Early in 1934 Major Hardenberg was transferred back to Washington, D.C. to serve at the office of the Chief of Infantry at the War Department. Rags went with the Hardenberg family back to Washington and, now in extreme old age, a quiet life.
On March 22, 1936 Rags died in Washington, D.C. at the age of 20. The little dog's death received considerable news coverage, and Rag's obituary was featured in The New York Times.
Rags's final resting place was in the Aspen Hill pet cemetery in Silver Spring, though perhaps Arlington Cemetery or the grounds of the War College might have been more fitting. In any case, he was a remarkable dog with a remarkable life.