Veterinary Hospitals and Battlefield Operations
The Corps In France
The Veterinary Corps in France was represented by veterinary officers and enlisted men, veterinary hospitals, veterinary convalescent depots, and veterinary supply depots.
By April 1918, the 132 veterinary officers available in France were quite able to meet all needs, but the situation was quite different in so far as enlisted men were concerned. The first two veterinary hospitals, comprising some 300 men each, arrived in France on April 4, 1918, the delay in their arrival being due to the same cause that delayed other Medical Department organizations; that is to say, shortage of tonnage and the necessity for giving priority to combatant troops. Some remount personnel were detailed to assist the veterinary service.
In addition to hospital groups listed above, other personnel were sent over with divisions, corps, and army organizations, until the Veterinary Corps, A. E. F., reached a maximum of 890 commissioned officers and 9,701 enlisted men. The latter were augmented by 2,000 labor troops who were assigned to this service, and at various times temporarily by several hundred men of the remount service. There was no appreciable service diminution until April 1, 1919, when the veterinary service began to be gradually reduced and personnel sent to the United States for demobilization and discharge.10
When the U.S. entered the war there were no plans for hospitals that would support horses and mules on the battlefield.
Both the British and the French had long recognized the need for hospitals. But the U.S. had not planned to enter the war. And certainly, it had not thought of veterinary hospitals. This amazed the British and the French, and certainly the war in France had been going on for years with the need for battlefield veterinary hospitals plain to any who cared to look.
The lack of planning for veterinary hospitals on the part of the senior army planners was probably the result of backward-looking thinking, considering the types of battles that the U.S. had fought since colonial times. Even accounting for the very limited understanding of medicine (both human and animal) during the 1700s and up through the Civil War, the real reason there were no permanent animal hospitals on battlefields was that the armies themselves moved dozens if not hundreds of miles over the course of a few weeks.
In U.S. campaigns prior to the Great War, all battlefield structures were temporary, if they existed at all. Men lived in tents or in the open, and horses and mules did likewise. Wounded animals were left behind if they could not travel with the advancing army.
All of this changed in France in 1914. Veterinary medicine had advanced to a point where disease and injuries could be effectively treated and even surgery was possible under battlefield conditions. And, most of all, the battlefield in France stayed in one place, stretched along the border between France, Belgium and Germany, and overall occupying an area about 350-400 miles long by perhaps 50-100 miles wide. To give some perspective, it is as if the entire war was fought in an area about half the size of Ohio.
By the time the U.S. forces arrived in 1917, the French and British had built port facilities, receiving stations, remount facilities, and veterinary hospitals for the hundreds of thousands of horses and mules in their armies.
They watched the desperately-needed U.S. troops arrive and were quite dismayed to see that they had little in the way of veterinary staff, and no plans for hospitals.
This was a sure recipe for disaster. Needing the U.S. horses and mules to remain on combat duty, the British and French offered the use of their own hospitals for injured and sick animals. But they had no way to influence the decisions that led to a lack of quarantine of newly-arrived animals, which was if anything, even more worrisome.
The French tried to meet the need by actually donating some of their own hospitals to the U.S. But the transfers were of the facility only, bare of even a halter or bucket. No medicines, tack, or supplies were included – and the U.S. had not thought to ship these until after the animals arrived.
The disorganization which characterizes most military mobilizations was very apparent in the care of animals by the U.S. during at least the first year in France.
Even after U.S. hospitals were built, the confused command structure of the veterinary service, with veterinarians themselves belonging to the medical side of the army, but the administration of the hospitals being done by the Quartermaster Corps and to some extent by the Cavalry, made for incessant confusion and inefficiency.
U.S. animal hospital construction never caught up to demand, with existing hospitals always overcrowded and sometimes housing twice the number of animals they were built for. In 1917 and most of 1918, animals had haphazard care because skilled personnel were not available to help them, hospitals were not yet built, and the extreme shortage of animals meant that field units kept their animals working despite disease because if they turned them in for care, no replacements would be sent.
Construction continued right up until the armistice, with many of the facilities seeing only a few weeks or months of actual use before the war ended.
General John Pershing, commander of the AEF, saw the need for hospitals and began organizing U.S. veterinary services at two levels in his theater of operation, without much coordination with the Veterinary Corps itself. In Pershing’s plan, base veterinary hospitals, with capacity for 10% of the animals at the base, would be located on the second or third echelon back from the front. These facilities, housing 1250 animals each, were intended to house animals with communicable diseases or which required a major surgical operation or prolonged treatment.
After the animals left these hospitals they were to be delivered to a remount depot for re-issue to the troops. There were also veterinary units at the remount depots, which saw cases of disease or animals injured during transport.
Eventually, three levels of hospitals were established, though so late in the war that they did not impact the lives of most American animals. But the statistics are still eye-opening: on August 31, 1918, there were 72,118 animals in treatment by veterinarians in the A.E.F., or about 44% of the total animals serving the army.1
The three levels began at the rear with the established veterinary hospitals, each with a nominal capacity of 1,000 patients, though nearly all were over capacity at all times. These hospitals were staffed with 7 veterinary officers, 1 medical officer, and 311 enlisted men who provided all the animal care.
Smaller units roamed closer to the fighting. These Corps Mobile Veterinary Hospitals had 2 officers and 35 enlisted men. Their function was to triage and treat animals that could be returned to duty within a few days, and to send more seriously wounded (but still mobile) animals to the bigger hospitals in the rear.
Between these two in size was the Mobile Army Veterinary Hospital (capacity 500 animals), with 4 officers and 144 enlisted men. These units could be set up as semi-temporary installations near a battle area or could serve a small base.
In addition to the hospital units, there were Veterinary Field Units that travelled with the gun corps, which used probably half of the animals that the army had in France. For each infantry division, three veterinary field units and one mobile veterinary section were assigned, with total personnel of 12 officers and 51 enlisted men. Each infantry division leaving the United States was to be accompanied by this contingent, part of them assigned to the field units and part to division headquarters, brigades, artillery regiments and trains.
No real veterinary hospitals were established in France in 1917. In the April and May of 1918 the first three establishments became operational, and by the time the Medical Department took over the veterinary service on August 29, 1918, eleven hospitals were operational, with a total capacity of 11,580 animals. Four others had at some point been established but subsequently abandoned.
By November 1, 1918, fifteen A.E.F. veterinary hospitals were operational, though construction at some were not completely finished. The total animal capacity then available was approximately 12,000, but this was inadequate as many more cases than this number had to be cared for, thus necessitating the use of picket lines, corrals, paddocks, and other expedients. On that date, there were 14,861 animals in the hospitals. This number actually increased after the armistice, with 20,000 in hospitals by March 1, 1919.2
The city of Tours, over 200 miles from the front, was selected as the location of the headquarters for the Service of Supply (S.O.S.), which included the offices of the chief quartermaster, chief remount officer, chief surgeon, chief veterinarian, and others.3 As the war progressed, the distance between Tours and the battlefront was cited as an obstacle to efficient functioning of the service – recalling that radio communication was in its infancy, telephone communication was very limited, and sending tissue-paper messages in tiny cylinders attached to the leg of a homing pigeon was still a daily occurrence in the army.
It is clear from records of the army itself that little thought was given to the suffering of animals. Requests by the Chief Veterinarian that sick or wounded horses and mules should be transported to hospitals by rail were absolutely refused.
According to the Commander-in Chief’s after action report, the result of this refusal “was that while this question was being decided, hundreds of animals were lost, through being evacuated long distances overland, when in debilitated and sick condition, often suffering from serious wounds, while literally thousands were retained with divisions through the inability if the veterinary personnel to cope with the requirements of long overland evacuation.”4
As noted by two veterinarians (one the Chief Veterinarian of the AEF), Delwin M. Campbell and Louis A. Merillat, a veterinary history of some of the most important battles of the war could never be written.5 There was no service to keep records. Trying to trace the activities of the veterinary service during the Battle of Chateau Thierry, one of the major Marne-area battles of the summer of 1918, shows this lack.
That summer, Major Charles H. Jewell of the Regular Army was the corps veterinarian. He had made no plans for evacuating animals. There was no American veterinary hospital established in the sector, although the French had vacated the large remount depot at Claye Souilly with the expectation that the Americans would establish a hospital there for the divisions they were mobilizing in the adjacent territory.
In fact, Major Jewell did not even know where the French veterinary hospitals were located and no contact with the French hospitals had been planned. This lack of military planning is an example of the disconnect between veterinary training and expertise (which Major Jewell had), and military planning/staff expertise, which he certainly did not have, despite having risen to the rank of major.
It was this lack of staff training that the new training school at Ft. Lee was trying to address – too late to help even in the summer of 1918, only a few months before the war ended.
The battles of the Marne were long anticipated, as it was believed that the German forces would make a major effort in the summer of 1918 to push through to Paris and eventual European victory. During the weeks of waiting for the German offensive to open, the units of the various divisions disposed of disabled animals without any central direction, often simply abandoning them into the countryside.
When the troops went into action against formidable enemy resistance, the animals wrecked beyond redemption were abandoned in the open or dragged over the highways to the French hospital and left as "unidentified American property."
As U.S. veterinarians Merillat and Campbell state,
“This unfortunate state of affairs was revealed in the inspection of such of these animals as could be located, when a veterinary service was being organized for the First Army and was taking charge of the situation. The battle was then in its closing phase. The scene was distressing from a veterinary corps point of view. Not only the abandoned animals but most of those located in the French hospitals were permanently ruined.”6
Detachments of the 2nd Cavalry and division mobile sections attempted to collect the abandoned animals, but often made matters worse by grouping disabled animals at places where forage and water were scarce, if at all obtainable. Animals that should have been transported by rail were made to walk for days.
For these animals a veterinary hospital was eventually established in the empty remount depot at Claye Souilly by the First Army, two months after the Americans took possession of the territory and three weeks after the battle had begun.
This may not be a long time by military standards but given the fact that the A.E.F. had been in France well over a year by that time with every opportunity to observe the need for animal hospitals, it was cruel and irresponsible on the part of senior commanders not to have given their attention to hospital construction sooner.
The hospital was manned by a remount squadron and plans started to collect the animals and transport them to it, but before and during the battle there were no standard procedures established for animal causalities.
Any animal that was deemed unlikely to recover in 30 days was put down.
Also sent to the rear were sick animals, though because of the shortage of mules and horses, unit commanders had a habit of keeping sick animals and working them until they were at the point of collapse before surrendering them to veterinary treatment. Many died unnecessarily as a result.