Rags, War Hero

Rags, War Hero. 1st Division Mascot, WW I. Aspin Hill Memorial Park.
Rags, War Hero. 1st Division Mascot, WW I. Aspin Hill Memorial Park.

There’s a granite stone at Aspin Hill Memorial Park which marks the grave of a dog named Rags who is dubbed a “War Hero” and “1st Division Mascot WW I.” I wondered how this dog became a war hero, but I didn’t wonder for long. The tale of Rags is one of the best documented of the pet cemetery stories.

By all accounts, Rags was a remarkable dog who was more than just a mascot to the First Division of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. He carried messages to the front line amid gunfire and shell blasts. He sniffed out gaps in the communication wires laid by the signal corps so they could be fixed. He was even able to predict incoming shells so that soldiers near him could take cover that much more quickly.  Rags provided a boost to the morale of the men with whom he served.

Before Rags became a war hero, he was a stray dog on the streets of Paris who was found and rescued by an American soldier, Sgt. Jimmy Donovan. Despite Army rules against it, Rags became the mascot of the division and Donovan’s constant companion. They were together during the ghastly Meuse-Argonne offensive toward the end of the war. Both Rags and Sgt. Donovan were wounded by shell-fire and mustard gas. Sgt. Donovan was shipped back to the U.S. for treatment. Through luck and the cooperation of soldiers who remembered him, Rags also made it to the military base where Donovan succumbed to his injuries.

After Donovan’s death, Rags was adopted by Major Raymond Hardenbergh and his family.  Rags followed them wherever the Hardenbergh’s military career took him.  Over the years, the major was promoted to lieutenant colonel and settled in the Washington, D.C. area. When Rags became old and infirm and needing more care than the Hardenbergh family could give, he was sent to Aspin Hill Kennels to live with Richard and Bertha Birney. He died there and was buried in the pet cemetery. Eventually a marker was placed on Rags’ grave which, even to this day, is decorated on a regular basis with flowers and an American flag.

Three books, including one for children, have been written about Rags’ many adventures both at war and afterward.  The most recent (and most thoroughly researched) volume was written by Grant Hayter- Menzies is titled From Stray Dog to World War I Hero: The Paris Terrier Who Joined the First Division. It is full of heart-warming stories about Rags and his protectors. It is also about the horrors of war, the bravery of soldiers, and the value of loyalty. It’s an excellent read for Veterans Day, or anytime you want to muse on the bond between humans and animals.

Sources consulted:


Hayter-Menzies, Grant. From Stray Dog to World War I Hero: The Paris Terrier Who Joined the First Division. Lincoln, Nebraska: Potomac Books, 2015.

Raven, Margot Theis. Rags: Hero Dog of WWI: a True Story. Ann Arbor, MI: Sleeping Bear Press, 2014. (children’s picture book)

Rohan, Jack. Rags; The Story of a Dog Who Went to War. New York, London: Harper & Brothers, 1930.

Newspaper articles

“Dog Hero of War Is Made Subject Of Soldier’s Book.”  Evening Star, September 5, 1930. pg. B1.

“Rags, War Mascot, Dies.” Evening Star, March 22, 1936, pg. B1.

“Rags, Dog Hero Of World War, Dies in Capital.” New York Herald Tribune, Mar 22, 1936, pg. 3.

4 thoughts on “Rags, War Hero”

  1. I grew up in Aspen Hill & know of this pet cemetery well. I used to go to St. Mary’s church (next to the cemetery) & spent many Sundays at the AMACO (American) gas station directly across the street when I was little until my teens.
    I always thought it was so amazing that someone cared so much to create such an amazing place.
    Great memories!!!!!

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