Injuries and Diseases
“It appears that the armies at war are more or less guilty of some form of sinful waste of horses….”1
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.
Like the soldiers they served, horses and mules needed medical care not just for injuries on the battlefield. Indeed, most of the deaths and debility of the animals came from disease and the poor care they got during their service in France. Tallies vary depending on the source, but according to the Remount Service, 22.5% of the animals sent to France died there – a full 5% of these after the Armistice.2
Their problems started as soon as they were purchased for Army use. Shipping horses and mules causes stresses of its own in these animals, lovers of routine and never happy in ever-changing conditions. Everything from being separated from familiar herd-mates and home stable to fluctuation of temperature, deprivation of both food and water, and lack of ability to move can negatively impact animals during shipment.
Generally poor conditions on the battlefield resulted in skin diseases, corns and infected nail pricks from ill-fitting shoes, frost-bite, swollen joints, girth and harness galls, saddle sores, and lameness.
Three major respiratory diseases, a serious epizootic disease, and skin parasites were the most common contagious diseases.
Putting hundreds of animals in close proximity, under stress and with lowered immune response, was the perfect recipe for the transmission of two very contagious respiratory diseases, influenza and strangles, as well as a more generic disease simply referred to as “shipping fever.”
Equine influenza was regarded as one of the major diseases of the battlefield, contracted from French horses that were purchased for the A.E.F. as well as brought into the country with new arrivals from the U.S.3
Today, there are vaccines for strangles and equine influenza, but horses still suffer from shipping fever, especially if they are tied in trailers and not allowed to lower their heads frequently.
Shipping fever is caused by bacteria normally present in the equine environment that the horse would usually blow out of his respiratory tract if allowed to stretch his neck down regularly, but during shipping, with the crowding of the rail cars, the animals were too confined to clear their airways and were often under additional respiratory stress from breathing highly ammoniated air from a closed boxcar filled with manure and urine.
Even if the shipped animals were examined and cleared by a veterinarian prior to shipment, somehow these three diseases appeared in nearly every shipment. There was no treatment except to feed the animals well and wait for the disease to clear on its own.
Another very contagious disease that was rampant during the war years was glanders. It was greatly feared because, in addition to infecting horses and mules, the same bacteria could also infect humans, with a human mortality rate approaching 90%.
Caused by a the bacteria Burkholderia mallei, glanders can take several forms but the fatality rate is high in horses and mules in all but the carrier state. There was a fairly reliable test for glanders that was used extensively during the war, the mallein test, which is still used a century later.
Mallein is a product of the glanders bacillus. The injection of mallein into normal animals produces no reaction, whereas the injection into glanderous animals causes a rise in temperature and a local reaction about the lesions. With the mallein test a large proportion of latent and occult cases of glanders can be diagnosed, but the test must be made and interpreted by an experienced veterinarian, or the results may be unreliable. A significant number of both false positives and false negatives are possible with the intradermal mallein test.
The ophthalmic test for glanders is reliable, and has a great advantage over other tests on account of its very simple application. In this test, three drops of concentrated mallein are put into one of the eyes of the animal, or introduced via a soft brush. The reaction usually commences in five or six hours after the introduction and is quite marked, with swelling of the eyelids and a purulent secretion from the tested eye. Irritation of the conjunctivae due to cold weather, dust and other irritating influences must not be confused with a positive reaction, but it is easier to get an accurate reading from the eye test than the skin test.4
Glanders did not just infect horses on the battlefield. A serious outbreak at the British shipping depot at Camp Dodge caused some 1,700 horses to be destroyed. They had to be buried deeply and then all the pens had to be disinfected in the entire shipping depot.5 These were horses that had been purchased by the British but were still in the U.S. awaiting transport to England.
A vaccine for glanders had been tested as recently as 1914 but proved completely ineffective;6 there is still no vaccine one hundred years later.
Glanders is still a health issue for animals in the developing world, and is seen by Brooke veterinarians, who are then placed in the position of having to recommend that the animal be destroyed despite its economic importance to its owner.
In World War 1, horses and mules were a commodity, scarce in supply but simply a number as far as the army was concerned. Diseased animals threatened the overall supply and destruction was a simple decision. Today in the developing world, each animal is a vital economic link for the family it supports.
Destruction of a carrier animal, not obviously extremely sick, is very hard for owners to accept. Yet, the disease is very dangerous for other animals and for humans, and putting the animal down followed by deep burial of the carcass is the only responsible thing to do.
One of the most insidious wartime conditions, and cause of incredible suffering, was mange – technically not a disease at all, but an infestation of skin-burrowing parasites.
Very contagious, mange was dreaded because it caused the horse or mule to suffer fierce itching and hair loss, as well as loss of blood to the parasites and thickening of the skin such that harnesses rubbed the skin raw. Nonetheless, animals with mange were often worked until they were so weak that their users could not get any further work from them, at which point they would be turned in to the veterinary hospitals for treatment.
To show the extent of this problem, on August 31, 1918, there were 19,316 cases of mange in the A.E.F.’s animals, which was about 27% of the animals on sick report. This grew to 30,736 cases by March 1, 1919, or about 62% of all sick animals.7
Unlike the other diseases, there was a very effective treatment for mange, although with advanced cases it often took several months for the animal to regain its strength and re-grow hair.
The mange parasites could be killed by dipping the horse into a huge vat filled with a solution of lime and sulphur, or sometimes arsenic. Holding hundreds of gallons, the long narrow vats were 11 feet deep at one end, completely submerging the animal as it was forced in.
The floor then tapered up to a ramp that led out the other end, but before they came out, their heads were scrubbed with brooms to make sure that they were totally covered with the solution. The vat was in a completely enclosed room and the water was kept at 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
The horses emerged in a room where they were rubbed down and then taken to heated rooms for drying. This treatment was very successful, though clearly labor-intensive and requiring a large facility.
Every third day 400 gallons of fresh solution was put into the vat and every tenth day the vat was entirely emptied and thoroughly cleaned. One thousand horses could be accommodated in one vat, each day, and some units had two vats in operation.8
Fumigation chambers were also used successfully against mange, as well as a means to disinfect blankets and other tack. A sulphur dust was pumped into the chambers, completely coating the animal, which had only it’s head stuck out of the chamber through a cloth sleeve. The head was treated by hand to keep the parasites from migrating there to get away from the sulphur.
Injuries and Overwork
Battlefield injuries were much as could be expected in wartime – shrapnel wounds from bombs or gunshots and skin and lung irritations from poison gas.
Simple wounds could often be stitched up and after rest and healing, the animal might well be returned to the battlefield. But shrapnel wounds often tore through tissue to such an extent that the animal had to be shot, because there was no effective means to combat the infection that invariably resulted from the multiple and jagged wounds.
Gangrene was also an issue with leg wounds, especially in certain areas of France where the soil was contaminated with Clostridium perfringens, the microorganism that causes gas gangrene. Gangrene refers to the death and rotting of tissue and cells, often in the skin but also in wounds that are exposed to dirt. It can also occur when the blood supply to a tissue is so interrupted that oxygen cannot reach the tissue and it dies, as would occur with deep or penetration wounds, or crush injuries.
Gas poisoning took longer to recover from and often caused permanent damage to the lungs. These horses and mules might be rehabilitated but often were put down, as was any animal not expected to recover in 30 days.
Overwork must be discussed separately because, had there been enough animals brought to France by the various armies, including the British and the A.E.F., there would not have been nearly as much overwork of the ones that were there. Each animal was in essence doing the work of two. Whether hitched in teams of two when four were called for, or, more likely, worked far longer hours that they should have been, animals suffered daily from overwork.
An unforeseen hardship occurred to horses when they had to march off-road, sometimes through soft plowed fields, to give precedence on the roads to “the endless caravans of automobiles, motor trucks, ambulances, field artillery batteries, signal corps units, pioneer companies and airplane sections.”9
In an article published before the U.S. entered the war, a U.S. cavalry veterinarian writes about his observations as a visitor to the battlefield in France:
“Continual night marches particularly have resulted in heavy losses from breakdowns. It is reported by authentic sources that on arrival in camp in the morning, horses were seen to fall asleep so hard that they could not be aroused, a condition of extreme fatigue termed by soldiers sleeping sickness. Night marching is also extremely injurious to the hoofs and legs of horses. Artillery horses have been reported as having been from seventy-two hours in harness, the batteries only making enough stops to feed the horses from nose bags. Cavalry horses have been kept under saddle for three days or more to guard against an attack by surprise. It appears that the armies at war are more or less guilty of some form of sinful waste of horses….”10