The tales of wounded soldiers of the First World War, such as those injured during the grim battles of the Western Front, are closely bound with those of medical professionals who came to their assistance—brave people including stretcher bearers, ambulance drivers, doctors, and nurses who sought to save human lives.
It is all too easy to forget that humans were not alone in the fight. More than 16 million animals played key roles in the conflict, facing the same risks, the same brutal environments, and in many cases the same types of severe injuries. Almost more overlooked than the animals themselves are the heroic medical professionals who dedicated themselves to rescuing and rehabilitating these creatures in wartime.
Britain’s Army Veterinary Corps—today known as the Royal Army Veterinary Corps—achieved distinction in its successful treatment of sick and wounded animals during the First World War.
A Public Outcry to Help Service Animals
The AVC was founded in 1906 as a result of evolving attitudes over time towards care for military service animals, particularly horses. Horses and mules were used as pack animals and pulled field artillery guns and ammunition, while specially bred horses were also used as cavalry mounts. As of the 1790s the British Army had veterinary officers serving in cavalry regiments, but animals were still in many cases regarded as expendable and there was no unified command structure or standard of care for them.
“The veterinary officer was simply a member of the regimental staff, completely under the thumb of his commanding officer who permitted him to treat only the animals of his own unit. He wore the regiment’s uniform and badge,” according to an article by Brig. J. Clabby for the Royal Society of Medicine, adding that veterinary officers rarely met to discuss cases and had no unified plan for treatment, especially for contagious diseases.
An attitude of carelessness toward horses persisted throughout the Crimean War and, despite the formation of the centralized Army Veterinary Department in the 1870s, reached a climax during the 1899-1902 Second Boer War, in which the British Army lost an estimated 326,000 horses and 51,000 mules mostly due to negligence. In response to a public and political outcry, reforms such as the 1911 passage of the Protection of Animals Act were implemented, and the AVC came into being.
Hardships Faced by Animals In World War I
Horses and mules would again see service during World War I, although conditions faced by these animals were arguably more horrifying than those their predecessors had endured in the past, particularly on the Western Front.
Cavalry horses were bred and trained for agility and quick movement, but these spirited animals were unable to perform what they were bred and trained to do because of the increasingly static and mechanized nature of the war—machine guns, mortars, barbed wire, trenches and mines ushered in the death of the cavalry as Europe had known it. Consequently, cavalry mounts were made to carry heavy loads as pack animals.
Horses and mules were used for pulling carts, transporting ammunition, moving artillery guns, pulling ambulances, working to pull down and transport felled trees, and transporting a wide variety of supplies.
In addition to equines, other animals including pigeons, camels, canaries (often used to detect poison gas) and dogs saw service during the war on various fronts, in addition to a variety of animals who served as mascots.
On the Western Front especially, these creatures had not only to survive but to perform critical duties in ghastly conditions which saw the natural world obliterated daily—grass was virtually nonexistent, trees were blown to pieces or harvested into oblivion for wood, the air was rife with poisonous gases in addition to the sounds and shell fragments of explosions, water was contaminated with heavy metals, decomposing bodies were omnipresent and the earth’s surface tended to be wildernesses of bomb craters or oceans of mud.
In addition to facing these environmental stressors, animals were also targeted by the enemy. The Germans routinely trained machine guns on pigeons and also deliberately sought opportunities to kill horses. During skirmishes that took place early in the war, German cavalrymen on the Western Front used lances to target their opponents’ horses; the Germans are also alleged to have made attempts to poison horses’ food. During the war, Britain alone would lose nearly half a million horses, with an average of one horse killed for every two men. In 1916, a total of 7,000 horses were lost in one day at the Battle of Verdun.
How British Veterinarians Made A Difference
In the face of these horrors, the dedicated veterinarians of the AVC made an enormous difference in the lives of animals in wartime. In fact, the AVC had an overall recovery rate of 80% for all animals who received treatment during the conflict—something never before seen in wartime.
The AVC had a high standard of animal care that was reflected throughout the British Army as a result of earlier animal welfare reforms. British cavalrymen were trained to provide basic care for their horses, such as first aid, grooming, nutrition, and load balancing, which involved walking alongside their mounts to avoid overtiring them. Soldiers were also taught how to avoid causing injuries to their horses’ and mules’ feet.
This was a stark contrast to the Germans and the French, whose sheer destruction of equines through neglect caused national shortages; in Germany, government requisitioning of any and every available horse impacted local farms and contributed to the famine subsequently known as the “Turnip Winter.” France lost more than 700,000 horses during the war, while the German and Russian armies are estimated to have lost a combined total of 3.25 million. By taking better care of their horses, the British ensured that the horses were not killed needlessly and were able to continue performing their duties for longer periods.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) worked jointly with the AVC to provide care for war horses. In 1914, the RSPCA created the Fund for Sick and Wounded Horses, which helped the army create 13 animal hospitals, including four large field hospitals which were outfitted with state-of-the-art medical technology and could each hold 2,000 equines at a time.
In addition, the fund supplied both horse-drawn and motorized animal ambulances, food, medicine, and educational materials for veterinarians, including 50,000 books on lameness and animal first aid. The fund also supplied 11 motorized ambulances to the U.S. Army, which established its own Veterinary Corps in 1916. The RSPCA also provided training to members of the AVC as well as to forces of allied nations interested in learning more about veterinary care. Altogether, the hospitals set up by the RSPCA treated 2.5 million animals during the war.
Special Hospitals For Animals
Although it had started off as a fairly tiny force in 1914 with less than 1,000 men at its core, the AVC grew rapidly during the war years with more than 15,000 members by 1916 and over 41,000 by the war’s end in 1918. A vast majority of veterinary surgeons in the United Kingdom served in the AVC during the war. On the Western Front alone, the AVC managed a total of 20 hospitals and four convalescent depots for horses. In Egypt, the AVC ran specialized camel hospitals.
The veterinarians’ work was far from simple. An average horse hospital could house over 1,000 animals needing treatment at any given time, and each horse required specialized care. On the Western Front, horses were exposed to gas which caused blistering and injuries to their eyes; mustard gas caused open lesions on their skin which were difficult to heal. Horses typically suffered from sheer physical exhaustion, dehydration and malnourishment from inevitable fodder shortages. Horses which became caught in barbed wire would often struggle to get free and thus cause themselves further painful injuries, which if not treated and cleaned would become infected and result in the horse having to be euthanized.
Additionally horses, as highly intelligent animals, were often traumatized from war experiences such as the explosions of mortars and mines. Veterinarians of the AVC noted that horses with more cultivated breeding and higher intelligence levels—like ex-cavalry horses, for example—suffered more acute psychological distress than sturdy pack horses who could be trained more easily to lie down and take cover during artillery bombardments. Horses often got stuck in mud and became filthy. Aside from battle wounds and the effects of gas, they also suffered from the mange and physical weakness. A single horse could take up to 12 hours to be bathed and groomed. The AVC treated more than 2,500,000 horses in France alone during the war.
The AVC also developed hospitals for carrier pigeons. One photograph taken in France circa 1917 shows three pigeons, all of whom had lost one leg due to battle injuries while successfully delivering their messages, at one such hospital. Rescued and rehabilitated carrier pigeons continued to serve in the British war effort for breeding.
The destinies of animals and the people who worked with them in wartime often became intertwined; one British soldier reported having his life saved by a wary mule who sensed an incoming German shell.
A Horse Called Warrior
A war horse who became famous for his numerous near-death experiences was Warrior, owned by Maj. Gen. John Edward Bernard “Jack” Seely. Warrior served on the Western Front from 1914 throughout the duration of the war, returning home after Christmas in 1918 to a long and peaceful life. The horse survived machine gun attacks, shelling, being buried under wreckage and escaped twice from being trapped in burning stables. “His escapes were quite wonderful. Again and again he survived when death seemed certain and indeed, befell all his neighbors,” said Seely. “It was not all hazard; sometimes it was due to his intelligence.”
Not all horses were as fortunate as Warrior. Many other men stated that their own sufferings increased at having to witness the sufferings of the animals around them. The presence of the AVC at the battlefields gave the men a recourse to get lifesaving treatment for their animals whenever possible.
A Major Milestone for Military Service Animals
The veterinarians’ exemplary performance during World War I brought about a sea change in best practices in medicine for military service animals. The high success rate in the rehabilitation and redeployment of service animals was unprecedented. At the end of the war, the AVC was awarded the prefix “royal” to its name, becoming the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, by King George V in November 1918 in honor of its wartime achievements.
The Quartermaster General, expressing congratulations about this honor, wrote that the Corps’ “high standard” had “at home and throughout all theatres…resulted in a reduction of animal wastage, an increased mobility of mounted units and a mitigation of animal suffering unapproached in any previous military operation.”
The Royal Army Veterinary Corps continues to exist today. Although it is one of the smallest corps in the British Army, it continues its tradition of providing important care for working military animals in action around the world today.