The Veterinary Corps: Caring and Curing
While this page is under construction, for an extremely comprehensive account of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps in World War 1, go to https://web.archive.org/web/20150906153637/http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~gregkrenzelok/veterinary%20corp%20in%20ww1/veterinary%20corp%20in%20ww1.html
Come back to learn more about the Injuries and Diseases that plagued our animals, Hospitals where they were cared for in disease and operated on for wounds, and what kinds of Medicines and Supplies the veterinarians used.
Injuries and Diseases
For both men and animals, more died of disease than of injuries. For both, hospitals and ambulances were provided. And for both, limits in the knowledge of disease, lack of antibiotic medicines, and limited field treatment options led to deaths that in later wars would be avoided. Still, many horses and mules were returned to active service from the veterinary hospitals in France. In this section we will look at the most common diseases and battlefield injuries and how they were treated.
British horse and rider in gas during the Battle of Verdun, 1916.Gas was a terrifying weapon but ironically often did not result in the deaths that were feared from it, because it depended so much on ideal weather conditions in order to be effective. But could certainly cause great damage if those conditions were optimal. A first-person account discusses the realities of poison gas and its effects on both horses and men:
“Gas was experienced at Vimy and Ypres, and many casualties occurred amongst our horses, but upon the cases being returned to a place known as Berthenwall Farm, all recovered under the care and treatment of our able Veterinary Staff.
“We had to contend chiefly with two kinds of gas, chlorine and mustard. The former was sent over in cloud form and in shells only. For the cloud gas we were warned from the front line by telephone, so that those in the rear transport lines could prepare for eventualities. Those men and animals caught in the immediate vicinity of the direct forward areas took to the high ground, other transports in ruins of towns made hurried exits, as the latter held gas clouds for long periods.1 [chlorine gas is heavier than air and collected in low lying areas, and could persist for long periods in places with little ventilation]
Poison gas was the most feared weapon in the war, damaging men and animals alike. The Medicine in World War 1 page has detailed information on gas types, toxicity, and casualty statistics. Some of that information is repeated here, plus specifics about the impact of gas on horses and mules.
“First introduced on April 22, 1915, the use of poison gas quickly became commonplace by all of the combatants. In the popular imagination, poison gas became one of the defining symbols of the Great War. All of the European powers had signed the Hague Declaration in 1899, never to use poison gas in artillery shells or other projectiles. Again, the Hague Convention of 1907 forbade the use of poison weapons. But once Germany used gas on the battlefield, all other armies began to use it. By 1917, one third of all artillery shells contained gas. Not surprisingly, then, about one-third of all casualties in the AEF were from gas.”U.S. horses wearing gas masks. Note that with the gas mask mouthpiece in place, these horses are not wearing bridles
Treatment of both men and animals was limited to supportive care. Rest and good food brought about healing in quite a number of cases. With mustard gas, immediate washing of the skin and eyes was necessary to stop damage from progressing. Many horses lost the sight of one eye but were able to keep working after recovery. Of course, if the animal was blind in both eyes it would be put down or, if sound enough otherwise, might be sold for meat.Two horses showing the effects of hyperite gas.
The army responded to this new threat with the formation of what eventually became the Chemical Corps. Research on gas masks was undertaken by all combatant nations, and this included masks for animals.
Tamblyn commented on the use of gas masks:
“The use of gas masks was not practical, more especially under shell fire. Men were instructed to adjust their own masks and bring their animals to safety at a slow trot. Such advice was responsible for the saving of the lives of many men and animals, because, prior to these instructions being issued, a great number of men and animals were killed and wounded in the attempt to adjust gas masks on animals during a gas attack.”3
U.S. gas mask.Mustard gas required different tactics. It was extremely caustic and the least exposure caused blistering of the skin. If inhaled, it was usually fatal, as it caused major injury to the lungs. Gas masks were effective in protecting humans but damage to the skin still resulted because the gas could soak into clothing. For horses, the gas would of course come into immediate contact with their skin and so the only protection for them was to move them away from the area that was targeted. Mustard gas was delivered in shells from long-range guns, targeted using observation aircraft.
When shells bearing gas attacks were observed heading toward picket lines, “the animals were cut loose and driven from the shelled areas, and when Fritz had decided he had done all the damage that could be done, the shelling would cease. The animals would then be returned to their lines, providing, of course, no shells had dropped within the actual lines, as contact with the ground where a mustard gas shell had exploded would be serious for any animal. The least touch of mustard gas on the body of an animal would produce a blister, which, when severe, let to sloughing of the skin.” 4
MAJ Robert D. Walk, a U.S. Army chemical weapons specialist, has written a summary of horse gas masks. He notes,
“The horse gas mask of World War I consisted of a large bag that fit over the horse’s nose and mouth. The horse bit into a canvas mouthpiece and the mask was held to the horse’s face by an elastic band. A canvas frame attached to the mouthpiece held the mask away from the nose so the horse couldn’t suck the mask into its nose. The carrier, a waterproof case, was strapped to the bridle or halter.”British driver and team with their gas masks.
“The United States issued two horse gas masks during World War I. One was a British mask (and the American copy) and the other was the American horse gas mask. The principle difference between the two was the material used for the filter. The British mask, noted for its high breathing resistance, was made of two layers of flannelette impregnated with komplexene. The breathing resistance limited its use in horses used to move supplies and equipment around the battlefield. The carrier was a 5- by 14-inch canvas duck bag. The American horse gas mask was made of multilayered cheesecloth impregnated with komplexene (six layers of cheesecloth) and simplexene (eight layers of cheesecloth) and had low breathing resistance. Because the horses disliked the flavor of this mixture, oilcloth was inserted between the mouthpiece and the cheesecloth. The American carrier was a 10- by 14-inch burlap bag. The American Expeditionary Forces used the British horse gas mask until enough American masks were supplied. The British mask was standard throughout the war. “6
French horses with gas masks.The high breathing resistance of the British mask was a major limiting factor in its use; when Tamblyn is writing about his experiences the mask he had access to was the British mask, which is why the tactics called for moving at a slow trot or driving the animals away from the gas without using masks at all.
The Fifth Avenue Uniform Company of New York City manufactured 377,881 horse gas masks of all types. Of this total, 351,270 were shipped overseas before Armistice Day. 7
- Tamblyn, David Sobey. The Horse In War. Originally printed in 1920, Jackson Press, Kingston, Ontario; reprinted by Leonaur, 2011, p. 39-40.
- From the Medicine in World War 1 page on this website: http://www.worldwar1centennial.org/index.php/injuries-in-world-war-i.html
- Ibid, Tamblyn p.40.
- Ibid, Tamblyn, p.40.
- Walk, Major Robert D.. “Military Masks Animals in Chemical Warfare.” Published online http://www.gasmasklexikon.com/Page/USA-Mil-Animals.htm
- Ibid, Walk.
- Ibid, Walk.
British poster from the Be Kind to Animals campaign, WW1 era.Within months of the beginning of the war, it was becoming apparent that none of the armies had the resources they needed to cope with the incredible numbers of animals involved. There were not enough horses and mules but in addition, there were not enough veterinarians, grooms, drivers, or farriers to care for the animals that were in France.
In civilian life, the cause of animal welfare was growing ever more popular in both England and the U.S.
These circumstances gave rise to an unusual alliance – private organizations that raised significant funds and provided medical supplies, horse ambulances and even entire hospitals to the British, French, and U.S. army veterinary organizations on the battlefront.
The Blue Cross Society
The first to act was a British organization, the Blue Cross Society. Organized in 1912 as a branch of London’s “Our Dumb Friends League” (at a time when “dumb” as assumed to mean “unable to speak” rather than “stupid.”)
Blue Cross was launched to help war horses during the Balkan War. The League was already very active in horse rescue in the streets of London, having its own horse ambulance and having opened an animal hospital in 1906 which was still operating a century later.1
The Blue Cross Society offered to assist the British army shortly after the war began. But recognition from the British was limited to letting the Blue Cross furnish “hospital requisites for sick or wounded horses,”2 i.e., supplies.
These were forthcoming and included everything from horse ambulances to humane killers, interfering boots to wither pads, and bandages to blankets and what passed for drugs at the time – things like aniseed, liniments, felt swabs, Vaseline, alum, olive oil, methylated spirit (rubbing alcohol), chlorodyne, disinfectants, magnesia sulphate, and iodine.3
The French government was more receptive, soon granting the Blue Cross Society full authority to immediately install and operate base hospitals for sick and wounded horses at the front.4 The Society raised funds and provided supplies, even including constructing entire hospitals in France, all financed and operated (including staff) by private contributions.5 Outfitting a hospital with instruments and drugs cost about $750 in 1915 (equal to about $18,500 a hundred years later, testament to how limited and simple the drugs and equipment must have been.)
A correspondent for the U.S. Cavalry Journal toured the front in 1915 and reported on the work of the Blue Cross: “They have taken over cow sheds, stables and hay barns on the bank of the Seine, at Moret, with fine pasture land adjoining. Here they accommodate around 300 head of sick and wounded French Army Horses. In all they have eight different hospitals around Paris. At each of these the French Government has in charge a retired cavalry officer with generally two Veterinarians from the Reserve Corps doing the professional work.”6 By late 1917 these hospitals had treated more than a quarter million animals.
Blue Cross also operated a convalescent station at Chantilly, with a capacity of 200 box stalls and a large acreage of pasture. This facility served as a clearing house for horses discharged from the base hospitals and nearing readiness to return to the front.
If a horse or mule came into a base hospital and was deemed unlikely to be able to be sent on to the convalescent station in a reasonable length of time (about 30 days at a maximum), the animal would be shot immediately.
Blue Cross had significant difficulty in hiring veterinary staff for the simple reason that nearly all British veterinarians were already on duty with their own army. French peasants were employed to do stable work. All forage, blankets, drugs, instruments, and everything else needed at the hospitals was imported from England.
To make matters even more complicated, the Blue Cross Society at least early in the war had not been recognized internationally and its workers had none of the protection accorded the Red Cross workers by the Geneva Convention.
The Society issued appeals in the form of posters and circulars which in themselves served to raise public awareness of the plight of war horses. They asked for gifts of supplies as well as money, which might be raised in schemes such as Collecting Boxes, Blue Cross Days, Blue Cross Badges, and Blue Cross Stamps.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA)
Another well-established British organization, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, also eventually was able to provide major assistance.
Although the RSPCA had offered to help the British army in 1914, this had initially been rebuffed. But by 1915, the army was glad of any help that it could get and made the Secretary of the RSPCA an honorary Captain in the British Veterinary Corps, clearing with one stroke of the pen, any organizational hurdles to cooperation.
RSPCA Army Veterinary Corps Auxiliary cap badge.One of the great advantages to this relationship was, in fact, its ability to expedite requests from the British Veterinary Corps for supplies or facilities needed on the battlefield – the Secretary could, if funds were available in the RSPCA, send a telegram approving the expenditure and bypass weeks of army red tape. 7
Through the RSPCA Fund for Sick & Wounded Horses, RSPCA collected significant donations that were passed to the front. Technically, the aid was limited to providing supplies, and that aid was considerable. But RSPCA staff also enlisted as British army auxiliary personnel, and by 1915, over half the RSPCA inspectors and other staff were serving with the armed forces, most of them with the Veterinary Corps.
RSPCA staff treat a horse on the battlefield, 1916.There were occasional moments of friction as the army leadership worried that they would be perceived as unprepared or incompetent to care for their own animals, but it became clear that refusing assistance would be foolish and not in the best interests of the war effort. According to RSPCA records, more than 1,850,000 horses and mules were treated in British army veterinary hospitals and 80 per cent treated were returned fit for duty.
Some of these were animals from the AEF, because the U.S. Army did not build any veterinary hospitals of its own during the 20 months between the time the U.S. entered the war and the armistice ending the conflict.
After the war ended, General Douglas Haig, Field Marshal Commanding-in-Chief of the British Armies in France, sent a letter of thanks to the RSPCA, with a list of its major contributions.
American Red Star Animal Relief
The U.S. counterpart to Blue Star was American Red Star Animal Relief. It was founded in 1916 as a direct response of the American public to the horrors of animals suffering in the war.
The U.S. Army’s official history of the Great War contains the following account of the beginning of American Red Star Animal Relief:
“In April, 1916, the president of the American Humane Association offered the services of this organization and its allied societies to the War Department for the purpose of rendering assistance in the event of war to wounded animals employed by the Army; furnishing base hospitals, veterinary supplies, and ambulances in a capacity similar to that in which the Blue Cross functioned for the allied foreign armies.
“On May 22, 1916, the Secretary of War invited the society to cooperate much after the manner of the Red Cross for human beings in the Army. As a result of this invitation the American Red Star Animal Relief was organized under the auspices of the American Humane Association to perform this work.
“Although encouraged by the Secretary of War in May, 1916, it was not until June 7, 1918, that this organization was officially authorized to function with the Army, to furnish emergency aid and such supplies as were not available from the War Department, as well as special equipment unattainable through regular appropriations.
“The Red Star rendered valuable service and in many instances supplied medicines, dressings, and other accessories to veterinary hospitals. A leaflet on first aid for Army horses was prepared and gratuitously distributed by the Red Star to soldiers handling horses, on the request of officers and veterinarians. Over 80,000 of these pamphlets were distributed for Army use.
Red Star donated twenty veterinary ambulances for use both in France and at Army facilities in the U.S.. It also built several supply buildings and sent “large quantities of bandages, surgical instruments, drugs, stable supplies, etc.”8
Because Red Star was recognized by the War Department from the start, it was able to begin work without some of the difficulties first encountered by the RSPCA or Blue Star.
In 1921, Red Star mounted a plaque on the State, War, and Navy Building located on 17th Street in Washington, D.C. The plaque is now in the Army Quartermaster Museum at Ft. Lee, Virginia. It reads:
“This tablet commemorates the service and sufferings of the 243,135 horses and mules employed by the American Expeditionary Forces overseas during the great war which terminated November 11, 1918, and which resulted in the death of 68,682 of those animals. What they suffered is beyond words to describe. A fitting tribute to their important service has been given by the Commander-in-Chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, General John J. Pershing, who has written: The Army horses and mules proved of inestimable value in prosecuting the war to a successful conclusion. They were found in all the theaters of preparation and operation doing their silent but faithful work without the faculty of hoping for any reward or compensation.”
All of these organizations still exist a hundred years later:
The Blue Cross Society is now the official name for all activities of the former Dumb Friends League. Blue Cross helps animals in England, Wales, and Scotland.
The RSPCA has not changed its name and, in 2018, is the largest British animal welfare charity, helping animals in England and Wales.
American Red Star Animal Relief is now known as Animal Emergency Services and remains a program of the American Humane Association. Red Star provides disaster and emergency relief worldwide.
And, as a direct result of World War 1, another organization was added to this list when Dorothy Brooke began her war horse rescue work in Cairo in 1934. Today the organization she founded is headquartered in London and is the world’s largest equine welfare organization. Working in the world’s poorest countries, Brooke veterinarians, farriers, and other staff assist horses, donkeys, mules and their owners to find a better life. BrookeUSA is their U.S. affiliate.
Learn more about what BrookeUSA does and how you can help working equines in the world's poorest countries.
- Quekemeyer, First Lieutenant J.G.. “British Blue Cross Society,” U.S. Cavalry Journal, April, 1915., p. 623.
- Ibid. p 627.
- U.S. Cavalry Journal, “Report on the Royal Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,” Volume 28, July 1917 – June 1918, p. 135
- Ibid, Cavalry Journal Vol 28., p. 135-136.
- . Ibid. Cavalry Journal Vol 28., p. 135.
- The Medical Department Of The United States Army In The World War. Volume I, Section III Chapter II. The Surgeon General's Office, Government Printing Office, 1923. http://history.amedd.army.mil/booksdocs/wwi/VolISGO/Sec3Ch02.htm