The story of the Alaska sled dogs that helped the French in World War I

The story of the Alaska sled dogs that helped the French in World War I

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

World War I conjures mental images of trenches and gas masks, of terrible innovations in artillery and aviation. While such imagery accurately describes much of the deadly conflict, there were other corners and fronts to the war. In the cold, mountainous passes of eastern France, trained dogs padded along the narrow, often snow-covered trails. When possible, they cut through scenic valleys that would, in decades after, amaze and delight tourists. On occasion, the booms of artillery and cracks of bullets shattered the otherwise idyllic peace, grim reminders of nearby death. These dogs, many of them from Alaska, were valued soldiers. In addition, they were personally selected, trained and delivered by the most famous Alaskan of the day.

As the war slowly dragged on, each bloody year limping into another, two French officers were explicitly concerned with the supply and communication logistics to and from the German front. Along the Vosges, a low mountain range near the French-German border, French soldiers were dying from the cold and a lack of ammunition. However, the paths through the mountains were difficult to navigate.

Capt. Louis Moufflet and Lt. René Haas each had experience in Alaska. They had seen sled dogs in action. Their problem would be solved if they could bring sled dogs from Alaska to France. So, in 1915, Haas was dispatched to Nome, where he sought the expertise of the best musher in the territory, Scotty Allan.

“Scotty” was a nickname. His parents named him Allan, which means his real name was Allan Allan. Before the 1925 Nome serum run, when Leonhard Seppala became a genuine celebrity, Allan was the most famous musher in Alaska, which is to say the world. In truth, he was really the first famous musher. Three times he won the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, the most prestigious sled dog race of the time. As he once humbly declared, “I have been in every race yet held, and I have not run out of the money yet.” He was also a breeder, inventor, prospector and legislator.

Before Balto and Togo, his beloved lead dog, Baldy, was the most famous dog in Alaska. There are many stories about the noble canine, but the most telling anecdote came during a Solomon Derby. Allan hit his head on a metal pole marking the course and fell off the sled, unconscious in the snow. Instead of running free, Baldy turned the team around and returned to his master, licking and pawing at Allan until he woke up, resumed his position, and won the race. Baldy was the subject of his own biography, “Baldy of Nome,” and when he died, newspapers around the country ran obituaries.

Lt. Haas was empowered to buy several hundred dogs capable of traversing the Vosges. Yet, no one, not even a champion breeder and musher like Scotty Allan, had sufficient numbers available. Per the Nome Daily Nugget, Haas “purchased the entire stables of Scotty Allan with the exception of the ‘old guard’ Tom, Dick, Harry and Baldy,” though many would have been descended from Baldy. The total count was reportedly only 106 animals, plus sleds and harnesses. Accounts vary, with reported average prices ranging from $30 to $100 per dog, roughly $900 to $3,000 in 2023 dollars. This cost did not include any equipment.

Alaska dogs at the front in France during WWI in 1917. (Library of Congress photo)

Scotty Allan and lead dog Baldy.
Scotty Allan (1867-1941) and lead dog Baldy. (Photo via Creative Commons)
Allan initially contracted to accompany Haas and the dogs as far east as Quebec. From Nome, a ship carried them to Vancouver, where they boarded a guarded train. Along the way, Allan acquired roughly 300 more dogs, plus the additional required gear. At some point, he also agreed to travel to France and train the dogs’ new handlers.

Reaching France meant crossing the Atlantic Ocean, then regularly patrolled by deadly German submarines. As the ship’s captain was worried that the expected barking would attract the wrong kind of attention, Allan trained the dogs to remain silent for the entire two-week voyage. A collection of shipping crates on the deck served as makeshift kennels. They landed at Le Havre in the late fall of 1915 without a glimpse of any enemy vessel.

For nearly two weeks, he trained the elite French mountain troops, the Chasseurs Alpins, on the finer aspects of driving a dog sled. The soldiers were quick learners and soon met with Allan’s approval. As for the possible language barriers, the veteran musher had no worries. As Allan saw it, “Instinct teaches the dogs what you want ‘em to do, and the language doesn’t cut much figure. You can drive dogs without swearing at ‘em.”

With the job complete, Allan spent several weeks more or less vacationing in France, though some bureaucratic troubles also extended his stay. While there, he had an improbable encounter with a member of a Scottish regiment. Like a modern Alaskan in an airport, he ran into someone he knew from back home. Said Allan, “Well, sir, you could a knocked me dead with a feather, right there in the front rank of a regiment of kilted Highlanders, stood that great big Swede who used to work for the telephone company at Nome. Him a Scotchman! Why he could scarcely speak United States the last time I saw him up north.”

Though he came nowhere near the front, the fallout from the war was visible everywhere, from the traffic at the port to the scarred passersby. World War I was marked by several revolutions in military technology that increased the distance from which one human could kill another. He met a wounded artilleryman who had been in action for 10 months but “never saw a single bloody German.”

Within two months of leaving Nome, some of the dogs were already in service, carrying needed ammunition via previously inaccessible routes. The dogs surpassed all expectations, traveling faster than any pack animal could in the wintry terrain. In one instance, a group of dogs delivered 90 tons of ammunition over just four days. For another mission, they enabled 18 miles of telephone wire to be laid in a single night, reconnecting an isolated unit to command. And most importantly, more French soldiers lived thanks to the dogs.

France was not the only World War I participant to employ war dogs, but nowhere else were they used so effectively. Three of the Allan-provided dogs were eventually awarded the Croix de Guerre for heroic acts. After the war, French authorities released all the animals from service; most became treasured pets in the region where they had served.

At the tail end of December 1915, Allan arrived in Canada from France. From there, he traveled to Southern California, where he spent his first winter in 20 years outside Alaska. While Allan was in France, Baldy was left in Nome, an understandable though disheartening separation. The loyal canine was inconsolable during the absence and prone to melancholy wanderings.

By the summer of 1916, Allan was back in Nome, building an “aero sled,” a snowmachine in other words. He believed his design could carry the mail from Nome to Valdez in only six days when 40 days was the rough standard by dog sled. The gas-guzzling prototype, which never made it far from Nome, was a regular, noisy and unwelcome presence on local roads. A couple of years later, he and Baldy relocated to California for an earned and warmer retirement.

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