Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross and known around the world for her work to relieve suffering, wrote a letter that was published in the Animal's Guardian in London near the beginning of the war:
"I have often said, that [of] the shocking and heartrending scenes on the battlefield, the screams of wounded horses lingered more painfully in my ears, if possible, then the moans of wounded men. I think it is necessary that the veterinary surgeon is commissioned to follow the army and put an end to the agonies of the poor, wounded animals which from their great vitality and strength will live long to suffer. They die slow and hard if left to themselves, and I myself have seen the vultures hovering over and tearing at them while life yet remained."
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.
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. For a video showing RSPCA veterinarians working in France during the war, click here.
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 was still very much in the building phase with its own veterinary hospitals 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.
“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. Brooke USA, headquartered in Lexington, KY, is their U.S. sister organization and is dedicated to significantly improving the welfare of working horses, donkeys and mules and the people they serve throughout Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Americas and the Caribbean by raising funds and responsibly directing them to the areas of greatest need. Brooke USA does this through a holistic approach to funding which includes capacity building, sustainability programming, female empowerment and international advocacy. Brooke USA connects private philanthropists with their passion for helping relieve the suffering of working equines and their owners.Learn more about what BrookeUSA does and how you can help working equines in the world's poorest countries.
Dorothy kept a diary of her work in Cairo that makes heart rending but fascinating reading. As the wife of a senior British army officer, Dorothy had no official status but was a woman of strong personality and determination. She was working in a culture in which women did not hold much public authority, and some of the difficulties she encountered were directly related to this cultural bias.
But, upper class foreign women were sometimes regarded as outside the cultural norms and it was this status that Dorothy used to further her work. She recruited men to help her, both British officials and Egyptian employees, and proceeded to found a hospital, giving treatment to all horses and donkeys regardless of their owner’s ability to pay.
Word of her buy-back program for former British army horses soon spread and she was inundated with owners wanting to sell her their lame and sick animals, which she humanely put to death either immediately or after a few days of loving care. For a society which worked animals until they literally dropped dead, this was considered a novel and perhaps foolish approach – euthanasia was not only never considered, it was contrary to some owner’s religious beliefs.
The work that Dorothy Brooke started continues today and reaches millions of animals and their owners every year, providing sustainable, lasting change by teaching owners how to care for their animals using locally-available food and shelter materials. Legislation focused on animal welfare and recognizing the importance of equines in the economies of developing countries is another aspect of our work.
To read more about Dorothy’s work in Cairo, see For Love of Horses: Diaries of Mrs. Geoffrey Brooke by Dorothy Brooke, ed. By Glenda Spooner, or Dorothy Brooke and the Fight to Save Cairo's Lost War Horses by Grant Hayter-Menzies.