IN EARLY SEPTEMBER 1939, the citizens of London set about killing their pets. During the first four days of World War II, over 400,000 dogs and cats — some 26 percent of London’s pets — were slaughtered, a number six times greater than the number of civilian deaths in the UK from bombing during the entire war. It was a calm and orderly massacre. One animal shelter had a line stretching half a mile long with people waiting to turn their animals over to be euthanized. Crematoriums were overrun with the corpses of beloved dogs and cats; the fact that they could not run at night due to blackout conditions mandating the extinguishing of all manmade light sources so as not to aid German bombers’ navigation, further added to the backlog. Animal welfare societies ran out of chloroform, and shelters ran out of burial grounds. One local sanatorium offered a meadow, where half a million pets’ bodies were interred.

None of this was done out of any real necessity. Supplies were not yet scarce. The German blitzkrieg was not yet underway, and wouldn’t begin in earnest until September of the following year. Nor did the British government issue directives or instructions telling its citizens to kill their pets for the greater good of the Empire. Rather, it was a mass action that arose, apparently spontaneously, by a populace terrified by the new reality of war.

Almost immediately, people realized what a mistake they had made. By November, the Times was lamenting that “there is daily evidence that large numbers of pet dogs are still being destroyed for no better reason than that it is inconvenient to keep them alive — which, of course, is no reason at all, but merely shows an owner’s inability to appreciate his obligations towards his animal.” The BBC’s first disc jockey, Christopher Stone, likewise railed against the massacre on his popular radio program that same month, arguing that “[t]o destroy a faithful friend when there is no need to do so, is yet another way of letting the war creep into your home.” By then, the wholesale killing of pets had abated, and many of the animals who survived those first four days would last through the war. But the damage had already been done.

The Great Cat and Dog Massacre: The Real Story of World War Two’s Unknown Tragedy, a new book by the historian Hilda Kean, sets out to understand how and why these horrific events took place. Despite its subtitle, it does not provide much in the way of a narrative of the massacre itself; the actual incidents of September 1939 occupy only one of nine chapters. Rather, Kean works backward and forward from that month to understand why British pet owners killed their dogs and cats in such large numbers, as well as to understand the legacy of that event. World War II, she observes, has long been known as the “People’s War” in Britain, “when, so the story goes, people pulled together and stood firm against the Nazis […] and withstood aerial bombardment with resilience.” But what about the Pets’ War? Writing about the conflict from the perspective of animals means approaching the subject obliquely, searching for traces that have been obscured, ferreting out voices among the voiceless. As such, Kean’s book works around the margins of World War II’s documentation: in diaries and letters, scattered asides in newspaper reports, unpublished memoirs, and forgotten advertisements. A passage in a young girl’s diary regarding a beloved pet rabbit bears for Kean far more useful information than an official state account. It is only in such marginal places that London’s lost animals appear.

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The killings, Kean contends, had a great deal to do with the changing relationship of humans (and particularly Britons) to dogs and cats in the early 20th century. Like pigs, chickens, and cattle, humans learned to keep dogs and cats around because they were useful to us: we domesticated dogs for security and hunting, cats for pest control. Their status as companion animals was initially just a side benefit, but with urbanization that began to change: city-dwellers had less and less need for their dogs and cats to do functional chores about the house, but we kept them around anyway. No longer useful in the traditional sense, dogs and cats became simply part of the family, and we started to ask not what pets could do for us, but what we could do for them.

These attitudes were all well and good in peacetime, but during World War I a significant portion of the British populace bristled at the thought of pets getting better treatment than some humans. The Times of London ran images from the Lambeth Cat Show of 1916, showing pampered pets on silk pillows, noting that “all the cats were sleek and groomed. Several were fat.” This last comment no doubt stung at a time when many were going hungry, and the prevailing opinion, particularly among the middle and lower classes, seemed to be that pets were decadent luxury items competing with human beings for food. While cat advocates still insisted that they were useful for pest control, in the eyes of many they’d become useless freeloaders. In 1915, the Times had opined that “when every penny is wanted for the Empire it is not time to maunder over cats.”

In many ways, it was the memory of World War I that determined the fate of animals in World War II. Many remembered feral cats and starving dogs wandering the streets of London, abandoned or orphaned, left to suffer in calamity’s deprivations. Once it became clear that war was inevitable, the British government set out to get ahead of this catastrophe, and began making provisions for the country’s animals. In August 1939, existing animal welfare organizations were gathered under an umbrella government program, the National Air Raid Precautions Animals’ Committee (NARPAC), tasked with coming up for a plan to protect British animals during the imminent bombing campaign. Specific provisions were made for livestock and other animals deemed to have economic interest. Pets, however, were left out of these considerations. While NARPAC never advocated the destruction of pets, it made no public provisions for them, while providing instruction and assistance for the moving of horses and other utilitarian animals out to the countryside. The government’s “failure to acknowledge in timely fashion the presence of dogs, cats, budgerigars [Australian parakeets, subject of a major pet craze in the 1920s and ’30s], and other companion animals would have severe repercussions for such animals,” Kean writes. “Although the state was not directly responsible for the decision of people to kill their pets, its lack of action made it easier for a positive animal-human relationship to be so drastically broken in September 1939.”

The state-enforced distinction between useful animals and animals that were seen as merely luxury goods provides one plausible explanation for the pet massacre of 1939. But this turns out to be only half of the story. Pets may have been less economically valuable than livestock, but their lives were valued more highly, and in a strange way the strong feeling that Londoners felt for their dogs and cats sealed those animals’ doom. To kill an animal rather than to let it starve was seen an act of mercy and compassion. One man euthanized his beloved cat Lulu, commenting that it was impossible to take Lulu with him out of the city, and that he could not bear to “think of him in other hands or exposed to the risks of war.” Numerous stories from the time from families who had their pets put down reflect a desire to protect them from the horrors and cruelty of what was surely to come.

Pets were like members of the family, and it is here that the real truth of the matter may emerge. In the run-up to the war, many parents spoke candidly of how they would poison their own children rather than force them to live under German occupation. “I have been collecting poisons for some time with guile and cunning,” one housewife reported to the social research project Mass-Observation. “I have sufficient to give self, husband and all the children a lethal dose. I can remember the last war. I don’t want to live through another, or the children either. I shan’t tell them, I shall just do it.” Her sentiment was echoed by numerous others in Britain that summer before the war. “I’d rather see my two boys dead,” a 45-year-old father said. “I’d poison them if I thought it was coming.”

When war came, however, no mass murders of children took place. Instead, it appears, many people sublimated this impulse toward mercy killing by exercising it on their animals instead. The mass poisoning of children, however charitably intentioned, would have heralded a breakdown in human civilization the likes of which British may not have recovered from. Not so with the euthanizing of pets, which could be justified as both an economic sacrifice in hard times and a way of sparing a beloved creature unnecessary suffering.

The curious moral logic at work here, which saw the euthanization of animals as a kind of substitute for the prevention of human agony, extended to the field of battle as well as the home front. A British soldier fighting at Dunkirk remembered seeing “horses and carts blown sky high, it was terrible. I remembering seeing people mutilated, blown to pieces.” But while the people were beyond help, “[w]e could do something about the animals. We saw a horse that had its guts blown open, and we could shoot it. But there was nothing we could do about the human beings. We couldn’t stop and give first aid.” Unlike humans, suffering animals can be taken care of “humanely”: one group of creatures could be put out of their misery, the other could not.

Like the deer substituted for Iphigenia at the moment of her sacrifice, London’s pets were sacrificed in lieu of its children so that Londoners could satisfy their desire for mercy. And it was precisely pets’ liminal status, halfway between the world of nature and the world of humanity, that put their lives at greatest risk. Unlike more utilitarian beasts who were regarded as little more than tools or sources of food, domestic animals could act as outlets for human empathy, yet their lives were still expendable enough to end without compunction.

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Human-animal bonds only grew stronger over the course of the war. Animals would emerge as key figures in evacuation stories, proof that the English cared about the least among them, the most defenseless, and that their love and familial bonds were stronger than any horror the Germans could throw at them. As adults were conscripted, children and pets were evacuated to the countryside. British children often described the experience of displacement in terms of animals: either the new farm animals they were now living among or the pets they’d been forced to leave behind. A survey of London children evacuated to Cambridge asked them what they missed most: pets were third on the list for girls, and eighth for boys.

What’s more, the love of animals was often framed in nationalistic terms, as a specifically British characteristic not shared by the enemy. Throughout the war, British propaganda would use German mistreatment of animals for its own gain. When German ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop and his staff abandoned the British embassy, they left behind a Chow named Baerchen whose plight was seized on by the press as proof of Nazi cruelty. On September 7, the Daily Mirror opined that “[t]hat’s what Britain is fighting — the inherent brutality of Nazi-ism, that has no justice or human feeling — even for its pets.” (This article ran the same day the Times reported that the centers of animal welfare societies were “filled with the bodies of animals and thousands more are being brought in every day.”)

Later, stories of civilians killed in the bombing alongside their pets would endure as symbols England’s resilience and compassion. Newspapers told the stories of an 80-year-old veteran and his Pekinese, found killed after the blitz of September 20, 1940, both “sitting together in the usual armchair,” and a woman in Bexhill, who was killed in a raid clutching her spaniel. Animals lived and died alongside their human companions, eating the same food, suffering the same hardships. In Kean’s words, “[t]he animal-human divide was being eroded.” A war that started as a catastrophe for domestic animals ended by cementing their status in British culture.

How did the pet massacre of 1939 come to be forgotten? At the time, not only were the killings reported on by many news organizations, but they were also a topic of heated debate. A veterinarian writing in the Eastern Daily Press that October complained that “in my opinion it is ghastly that people should sacrifice their pets without reason.” Particularly for a country that was using German cruelty toward animals as propaganda, the pet massacre posed problems for England. As Kean notes:

It was neither seen as an inevitable consequence of war nor construed as an example of the wartime propaganda of “Britain can take it.” Rather this act undermined the propaganda notion of resolute behavior; it was seen as a lack of steadfastness and portrayed negatively in the media.

But despite the attention it received at the time, the pet massacre has since been all but written out of British history. Kean reports that when she first approached the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) archives for information about the killings, she was told via email that “[t]here is no evidence in our surviving records of the time of any ‘massacre’ of pets at the start of WW2” — this despite the fact that the RSPCA’s magazine Animal World had reported in October 1939 that “the work of destroying animals was continued, day and night, during the first week of the war.”

It makes sense, of course, that Londoners would not want to remember such a dispiriting chapter in their history, one that reveals a deep tendency toward needless panic. The British pride themselves to this day on their stoicism in the face of war, a legacy that has been condensed to a single graphic image: five bold, sans-serifed words imposed over a stark red background beneath an image of a crown: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. By unearthing this odd but significant moment of compassionate hysteria, Kean’s book undercuts this portrayal of the resolute Empire, suggesting the terror and irrationality beneath the stiff upper lip.

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Colin Dickey is the author, most recently, of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.