The use of animals in military ceremony and warfare has always interested me. On a trip to Cardiff (Wales) in 2010 I encountered the stuffed Qatar goat Billy of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. It turns out that all the Royal Welch* Fusilier goats are called William of Windsor (Billy for short). They have a ration of cigarettes and Guinness (the goats eat, rather than smoke, the cigarettes), can move up the ranks, are saluted, and wear ceremonial dress when in parade. It is said that the use of goats as members of the military started after a wild one wandered about the battlefield during the American Revolutionary War in 1775, seemingly leading the Welsh regimental colours to victory at the Siege of Boston.

* ‘Welch’ is not a typo, it’s the Old English (sometimes preferred) spelling of ‘Welsh’.

Wikipedia’s article on the regimental goats of the Royal Welch Fusiliers is pretty good (so far as I can tell, not claiming any special expertise in this area) [it’s here]. It includes discussion of how what I believe to be another Billy (this one served 2001-2009, being retired to Whipsnade Zoo in 2009) was demoted from lance corporal to fusilier after lack of decorum, unacceptable behaviour and disobeyance of an order during a 2006 parade held in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday on Cyprus. Don’t worry; he was later promoted following exemplary good behaviour. This Billy is shown below [image from wikipedia].

Fascinating as the idea of a goat with a military rank may be, you might be wondering why people are prepared to apparently take quite seriously the concept that a non-human might be considered equal in rank and privilege to its human contemporaries. I don’t want to get all misanthropic, but many human societies are typically geared toward the general notion that non-humans are very much subordinate and inferior to we special magical humans. Several factors might help explain the presence of goats in the military. Tradition is foremost – there have been an unbroken series of military goats in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, for example, since 1844.

However, one other factor is that their presence is good for the morale of men and women otherwise engaged in an arguably mundane environment. The task of caring for a living thing with special requirements might also help enrich the lives of the surrounding people. Another factor to consider is that the presence of a non-human with a formal rank might represent a sort of test of protocol and obedience.

And once a non-human like a goat has joined a battalion, there’s little question that bonding demands that humans and non-humans develop emotional ties and a sense of comradeship. Indeed, another military goat – also termed Billy – served on the battlefield during WWI with the 5th Canadian Battalion and received stripes for wounds and services rendered during battle. This Billy is credited with saving several people from shelling, on one occasion butting a sergeant and two others into a trench and thus saving them from the nearby explosion of a shell. He was discovered apparently standing guard over a Prussian guardsman, despite receiving injuries (Dukes et al. 1993). You could be sceptical and suggest that these stories are apocryphal, or misinterpretations of self-preservational behaviour on the part of the goat (some of you will have seen the recent BBC documentary where an escaping bison smashes a companion head over heels in its effort to run away from a wolf pack). Maybe they were, but maybe they weren’t – there are plenty of cases of non-humans practising altruism, especially (of course) social species like herding artiodactyls. More importantly, perhaps, the men of the battalion interpreted Billy’s behaviour as an altruistic example of comradeship, reinforcing his inclusion as an active member of their battalion.

Incidentally, the Billy of the 5th Canadian Battalion is also mounted and now on display. After four years of service in France and Belgium, he was transported to England and was somehow back in Canada by 1919 (despite immigration control). He died soon afterwards, and – as of 1993 at least – was on display at Broadview Historical Museum in Saskatchewan (Dukes et al. 1993).

There is, as usual, so much more to say. The goats discussed here have been actual, ranked members of the military. But plenty other military goats have been used as mascots, most notably the numerous ‘Bills’ that have served for the United States Naval Academy. This tradition apparently started in 1893 after a goat called El Cid (= ‘the chief’) was seen as instrumental in the triumph of the Navy over the Army at the fourth Army-Navy Game. He was later renamed Bill. As of 2011, he has been succeeded by an additional 34 Bills (Bill XXXII died in April 2011 but is survived by Bill XXXIII and Bill XXXIV).

For previous Tet Zoo articles on domestic animals, see...

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Dukes, R. L., Galbraith, I. W. & Dukes, T. W. 1993. Wounded in action: Sergeant Billy, the goat in military service for Canada in the Great War. Canadian Veterinary Journal 34, 689-691.