Tuesday 21 January 2020

Irish movie salute to Sgt Stubby, unlikely hero of the Western Front

The story of a stray adopted by soldiers reminds us how keenly attuned dogs are to humans, writes Maeve Sheehan

Corporal Robert Conroy smuggled the dog he named Stubby on board the USS Minnesota bound for France, a story that has been made into an animated movie
Corporal Robert Conroy smuggled the dog he named Stubby on board the USS Minnesota bound for France, a story that has been made into an animated movie
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

There was nothing heroic looking about the mutt that wandered on to Yale university campus where American soldiers were being drilled for war 100 years ago. He was just a homeless dog scavenging for food, no doubt a delightful distraction to young soldiers preparing for trench warfare far away from home.

But for the actions of an Irish American army private, he would almost certainly have been just another stray, left behind to continue his scavenging when the troops moved on. Instead, Corporal Robert Conroy smuggled the dog he named Stubby on board the USS Minnesota bound for France, embarking on a journey that would transform the stump-tailed Boston terrier cross into a much-loved hero dog of World War I.

In the centenary of the end of the Great War, an Irish animation company has helped bring the true story of the bond between the soldier and his dog to a new audience with a $20m (€17m) movie due to open in Ireland next month.

Sgt Stubby: An Unlikely Hero, by Kinsale-based Fun Academy Media Group, features the voices of Logan Lerman, as Private Robert Conroy, Gerard Depardieu and Helena Bonham Carter, as Conroy's sister, Margaret O'Brien, who narrates Stubby's adventures through letters from her brother.

The real-life story is so remarkable that the computer animated version needs little embellishment.

The Smithsonian Institute in Washington records that at training camp in Yale, the dog learned to respond to bugle calls and to mimic a salute by putting his right paw on his right eyebrow. When the 102nd Infantry Regiment set sail for France, Private Conroy arranged for the dog to be concealed in a coal bunker until they were far out at sea.

On landing in France, Conroy smuggled the dog ashore under his greatcoat. When Conroy's commanding officer inevitably discovered the canine among them, the dog's salute saved him. He became the official mascot of the 102nd Infantry regiment when it was dispatched to the front line at Chemin des Dames in February 1918.

Embedded in the trenches of the Western Front for 18 months, there was more to this dog's role than lifting the spirits of troops bloodied, wounded and wearied by horrific combat.

He sniffed out vermin from the trenches. He detected gas attacks before they hit. In one early morning incident, he roused sleeping soldiers by running through the trenches barking and nipping at them, according to the Smithsonian Institute.

He located wounded men between the trenches on no man's land, barking until medical help arrived.

Stubby was hit with shrapnel in his leg and torso, and wounded by mustard gas - after which Private Conroy had the dog equipped with a gas mask. Stubby recuperated with wounded soldiers in fields behind the front line, and returned to the trenches when he healed.

He disappeared from the trenches occasionally, but always reappeared. He is reputed to have caught a German soldier who was spying on the Allied trenches. The story goes that the spy tried to get the dog onside, but Stubby barked the alarm, ran after the enemy as he retreated, snapping at his legs. "Seizing his prisoner by the breeches, Stubby held on until help arrived," The New York Times reported in a breathless obituary.

In the years before his death, Stubby became another kind of mascot, lifting spirits as he had done in the trenches at a time when the country was in the grip of depression. With Conroy, he toured the country, visited some of the 200,000 injured war veterans, met three US Presidents and briefly became a vaudeville act with Conroy. Stubby died in 1926 in his sleep and his New York Times obituary began: "Stubby is dead." Conroy had a cast made of his loyal companion.

Richard Lanni, a maker of historical documentaries who lives part time in Kinsale, stumbled on Stubby's story while researching a programme on Americans in World War I.

"I thought this is too incredible not to turn into a movie," he said. The project has been years in the making. Lanni and partners in Ireland and the US set up Fun Academy to make the computer-animated movie.

The movie opened in the US in April and is what they hope to be a "slow burner" that will run until Armistice Day anniversary on November 11. Press around Stubby has been big. A statue has been erected in the dog's honour.

Sgt Stubby: An Unlikely Hero opens in Irish cinemas on August 10.

The animation studio in Kinsale is working on two follow-up films and plans other educational movies.

"I think Stubby was a constant source of comfort to his handler, Robert Conroy, and everybody around him. He went to visit veterans in hospital, the dog was active in the veteran community. He became this amazing hero and then became a therapy dog," he said.

"When they came back [to the US], there wasn't much work. There were general strikes and all sorts of problems. By telling the story of Stubby, we can chronicle the period of what was going on and when they came back, how the world had changed. We can deal with issues faced by soldiers when they came back from the war.

"We didn't know what PTSD was then, they call it shellshock. I have spoken to a lot of families whose relatives fought in that war, who say they came back and they were never the same."

Stubby reminds us how keenly attuned dogs can be to human owners.

According to Sabrina Phelan, training and behaviour adviser with Dogs Trust, we sometimes expect too much of dogs, such as sitting quietly at home alone all day, but sometimes they confound all expectations.

"We hear these amazing stories because dogs can form incredible attachments with people," she says.

Sunday Independent

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