The dogs of war (phrase)

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For other uses, see The Dogs of War.
Punch cartoon from 17 June 1876. Russia preparing to let slip the "Dogs of War," its imminent engagement in the growing Balkan conflict between Slavic states and the Ottoman Empire, while policeman John Bull (Britain) warns Russia to take care. The Slavic states of Serbia and Montenegro would declare war on the Ottoman Empire two weeks later.

In English, the dogs of war is a phrase from Act 3, Scene 1, line 273 of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "Cry 'Havoc!', and let slip the dogs of war".

In a literal reading, "dogs" are the familiar animals, trained for warfare; "havoc" is a military order permitting the seizure of spoil after a victory and "let slip" is to release from the leash.[1][2][3] Shakespeare's source for Julius Caesar was The Life of Marcus Brutus from Plutarch's Lives, and the concept of the war dog appears in that work, in the section devoted to the Greek warrior Aratus.[4][5][full citation needed]

Apart from the literal meaning, a parallel can be drawn with the prologue to Henry V, where the warlike king is described as having at his heels, awaiting employment, the hounds "famine, sword and fire".[6]

Along those lines, an alternative proposed meaning is that "the dogs of war" refers figuratively to the wild pack of soldiers "let slip" by war's breakdown of civilized behavior and/or their commanders' orders to wreak "havoc", i.e., rape, pillage, and plunder.[7][full citation needed][8][unreliable source]

Yet another reading interprets "dog" in its mechanical sense ("any of various usually simple mechanical devices for holding, gripping, or fastening that consist of a spike, bar, or hook").[9][full citation needed] The "dogs" are "let slip" – referring to the act of releasing. Thus, the "dogs of war" are the political and societal restraints against war that operate during times of peace.

Victor Hugo used "dogs of war" as a simile for cannon fire in chapter XIV of Les Misérables:

Another cannonade was audible at some distance. At the same time that the two guns were furiously attacking the redoubt from the Rue de la Chanvrerie, two other cannons, trained one from the Rue Saint-Denis, the other from the Rue Aubry-le-Boucher, were riddling the Saint-Merry barricade. The four cannons echoed each other mournfully. The barking of these sombre dogs of war replied to each other.[10][full citation needed]

In modern English usage "dogs of war" is used to describe mercenaries.

The phrase has entered so far into general usage - in books, music, film and television - that it is now regarded as a cliché.[11]


  1. ^ "dog, n1 1(d); havoc, n". Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 1989. esp[ecially] in Shakespearian phr[ase] the dogs of war 
  2. ^ From the fourteenth century an unauthorised call to "havoc" during battle was punishable by death. Keen, Maurice (1995). "Richard II's Ordinances of War of 1385". In Archer, Rowena; Walker, Simon. Rulers and Ruled in Late Medieval England: Essays Presented to Gerald Harriss. London: Hambledon Press. pp. 33, 36. ISBN 1-85285-133-3. 
  3. ^ Bate & Rasmussen (2007), p. 1834.
  4. ^ Bate & Rasmussen (2007), p. 1803.
  5. ^ Lives Volume XX, chapter 24, in the Bernadotte Perrin translation.[full citation needed]
  6. ^ Cornwall (1843), p. 517.
  7. ^ The Phrase Finder - "Cry Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!"[full citation needed]
  8. ^ Peter Pappas, "Shakespeare for All Time" blog. "Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Dogs of War".[unreliable source]
  9. ^[full citation needed]
  10. ^ [1][full citation needed]
  11. ^ Partridge, Eric (1940). A Dictionary of Clichés. London: Routledge. p. 253. OCLC 460036269. 


See also[edit]

External links[edit]

  • The dictionary definition of cry havoc at Wiktionary