The first known war dog buried at Aspin Hill Pet Cemetery was “Staff,” who fought with an unnamed American unit in World War I. He was wounded by German artillery, but French surgeons stitched him back together again. Two bullets remained embedded in his leg. His mate, “Fritzie,” also fought in the war. Staff died in 1925; Fritzie died six years later in 1931.1
Staff was decorated by both the French and English governments for his valor, but not by the American Government. Although most European countries had adopted the use of dogs in the military in advance of World War I, the U.S. did not. Once the Americans arrived on the front, troops saw how useful dogs were as messengers and sentries, and resorted to begging or bartering for dogs from their allies.2 Some, like Rags, the most celebrated war dog buried at Aspin Hill, were picked up as a strays.
It’s not clear how Staff and Fritzie came into the service of American troops in France, or how they managed to get to the U.S. after the war. Perhaps the reason we don’t know is that they had no official status with the Army and would not have been allowed on bases or transports. Rags’ story is full of instances of how he evaded detection on his own or with the aid of his human companions. Maybe that is why the officer who owned Staff and Fritzie asked the pet cemetery’s owners to keep his name out of the papers. The first newspaper story that mentions Staff’s burial at Aspin Hill contains this cryptic quote:
“One of the latest burials was that of one of dogdom’s most distinguished personages. He was said to have been brought over here after the war. He had been in the thick of many battles overseas and was the holder of numerous medals for bravery, Mr. Birney declared. ‘I don’t know his name and am not at liberty now to give you the name of his owner, a Washington Man, but I understand that a fund of several thousand dollars is being raised in the Army for a monument to him, to be erected over his grave here.'” 3
Even the burial register at Aspin Hill doesn’t reveal the officer’s name. The person who arranged both burials was a civilian mechanic at Fort Belvoir. However, it was said that the officer made frequent visits to the cemetery to stand at Staff’s grave site. 4
Photographer Malcolm Walter visited Aspin Hill Pet Cemetery in 1927, and photographed the monument on Staff’s grave. At the time, Fritzie was still alive.
Staff and Fritzie’s grave site today:
- “Costly Stones Mark Graves Of Pets In Novel Animal Cemetery,” The Washington Times, August 14, 1933, p. 15.
- Mary Elizabeth Thurston, The Lost History of the Canine Race: Our 15,000-Year Love Affair with Dogs (Kansas City, Andrews and McMeel, 1996).
- “Touching Epitaphs in Pets’ Cemetery; Funeral for Dogs, Cats, and Other Domestic Animals Often Elaborate,” Evening Star, March 23, 1925.
- Pet Cemetery Holds Body of Dog Hero,” The Baltimore Sun, February 9, 1930.