Book Review: War Hero

The True Story of a Stray Dog and an American Soldier in the Great War

“Since the beginning of history animals have shared the hardships of fighting men, and Rags was an outstanding example of devotion. He was a real soldier dog.”

– Major General, First Division

July 14, 1918, Paris, France: Private James Donovan, a young man from America’s heartland, staggered through the labyrinth of cobblestone streets in the Montmartre District. It was late evening and the summer’s sun had alread set making it nearly impossible to determine which direction would take him back to army base camp. Earlier that day, he had been handpicked by then Captain George S. Patton along with a group of men from his First Division to march in the Bastille Day parade on behalf of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). Since his unit was scheduled to be deployed to the Western Front early the next day, the soldiers hit the bars that afternoon.

At some point, Donovan drunkenly wandered off alone and got lost. He had no idea that he was about to meet the greatest friend he would have during his life as a soldier. Of this fateful encounter, Talty writes: “As he stumbled along a dark alleyway, his feet got tangled in a bundle of rags and he nearly toppled over. He would have kept going had he not heard, or thought he heard, the bundle whimper and then let out a ‘subdued but friendly bark.’ ”

Donovan investigated and found a neglected vagrant hiding beneath the rags. It was a terrier that stood up on its hind legs, staring back at him, and panting. And so began the true story of a dog and his person during the Great War.

Donovan named the stray, Rags which was befitting of his shaggy unkempt appearance. He cleverly passed the dog off as the mascot of the First Division in order to get him past the MPs to where his unit was billeted. Talty writes of Rags:

“The terrier’s backstory is even more obscure than Donovan’s, but we do know he was about two years old in 1918, which means he’d been born during the war. Paris in 1916 was under siege, and Rags had most likely grown up knowing little else except hunger and isolation. Donovan was potentially the first person who had ever been kind to him…”

Donovan’s Commanding Officer took a liking to the curious little dog and allowed it to go with Donovan to the Western Front. Although Donovan tried to keep Rags out of harm’s way by leaving him behind the lines at HQ when he set out on his first mission, Rags would not let his friend go it alone. Instead, he charged straight into war at Donovan’s side. With some training over the months, he became a messenger between Donovan’s Signal Corps unit and the field artillery units when communication lines were down. He spent days visiting the trenches to cheer up the men. The terrier’s unabashed bravery in the months to come earned Rags his own special fitted respirator to keep him safe during enemy gas attacks. Later, during the final American campaign of the Meuse-Argonne, Rags served alongside Donovan and rose to the status of hero for his courageous efforts as a messenger who was undeterred by the rugged terrain, German snipers and machine gun nests.

“He’d [Rags] offered the soldiers companionship in conditions that beggared description.
And like them, he’d been wounded and suffered terribly.”

Relying on numerous memoirs, newspaper articles and nonfiction works, author and acclaimed historian, Stephen Talty does a fine job of showing the love and loyalty between a man and his dog without being overly sentimental. He balances the conditions of a soldier’s life at the front with the historical timeline of specific military operations. This gives the reader a captivating overview of America’s often overlooked involvement in the Great War. Talty’s writing style is straightforward and engaging, but also provides insight and compassion for his characters and their circumstance.

“Rags became,” one of his biographers wrote, “so far as the old-timers were concerned, the living symbol of the division’s valor.”

This novel is a poignant read about a dog from the Paris streets that by happenstance or destiny, faithfully served alongside his person in wartime then carried the esprit de corps of the otherwise downtrodden soldiers in the post war years to victory. He marched with 1st Division troops down Broadway for their ten-year-reunion, he appeared at various military bases during his retirement to salute soldiers for the flag retreat ceremony, and won the ‘War Dog Sweepstakes’ at the Long Island Kennel Club dog show. There is so much to like about this book. The fact that War Hero is a based on a true story only makes it better.

Published in 2015, the book is currently free reading with a Kindle membership at https://www.amazon.com/War-Hero-Unlikely-American-Soldier-ebook/dp/B00XNRB9H0. It is also available as free pdf download at issuu: https://issuu.com/mozehiju/docs/b00xnrb9h0-war_hero_by_stephan_talt 

Emmanuel Navarro

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