1918: The war ends - Veterinary Practice
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1918: The war ends

Bruce Vivash Jones continues his series looking back to World War I with an account of the vital role played by more than two-and-a-half million horses and mules, as well as dogs and carrier pigeons.

THE year started with a feeling of gloom: was there no end in sight? On both sides the conflict was a terrible drain on homeland resources: in men, horses, food and supplies.

The cynical remark was made that if a man dies “you just replace him, but if you lose a horse it takes time to train him, he is more valuable”.

The Germans were planning a major offensive and elaborate plans were made for an Allied retreat. On 22nd March they attacked on a 50-mile front; there was chaos, and effectively the end of trench warfare.

On 27th May the Germans reached the river Marne – but got no further. By 8th August they were in full retreat; General Ludendorff called it “his blackest day”. The Germans were driven back and on 11th November the Armistice was signed.

The end of the war meant that the Army, through the Army Veterinary Corps, had to dispose of thousands of horses. The best animals were saved for use as officers’ chargers or the British police force, and then between 11th November 1918 and 31st March 1919 the AVC disposed of 152,077 horses and mules: 74% were sold to farmers and breeders, 22% were butchered for consumption and 4% were destroyed for their by-products.

For this last exercise, a machinery set was designed termed the “Horse Carcass Economiser”: animals in one end and hides, bones, fat, hair and dried meat out the other. Notably, the disposal was free from any transmission of glanders or other serious disease.

For most of the war we had about one million animals in service with roughly half in France. Total purchases by the Remount Service were 1,361,000: of these some 450,000 were in the UK and the rest overseas, mostly from the USA and Canada.

Pre-war the British Army had about 23,000 horses, but in the first 12 days, in a near-panic atmosphere, 165,000 horses were purchased in Britain, with a significant proportion being later rejected as unfit or unsuitable.

During the war years, 2,526,549 horses and mules were admitted to hospital of which 78% were cured and returned to service. The average number declared sick in 1917 (the worst year) was over 110,000. The total deaths of equines between August 1914 to November 1918 from all causes, on land and sea, was more than 500,000.

It was estimated that an Army eld unit in France with 10,000 animals (pack, draft, riding) needed 200 replacements each week to keep establishment numbers.

Animal wastage varied considerably with the climate, terrain and type of warfare but the chief causes of mortality in equines were: battle casualties and injuries, debility and exhaustion, contagious diseases and intestinal diseases.

Hospital care and preventive medicine were interwoven; the veterinary priorities were control of equine mange, routine temperature taking, watching for chest/pneumonia cases, a co-ordinated use of the mallein test (to control glanders) and measures to prevent disease spreading from Army installations.

The wartime experience did advance both surgical techniques and medical care. A cadre of men with enormous practical experience returned to civilian veterinary life, unfortunately one where the horse was to play a declining role.

Following the reorganisation set in hand pre-1914 by Major-General Sir Frederick Smith, the AVC record, in systems and operational efficiency, under extreme stress at times, was good. Ludendorff said that if the German Veterinary Corps had been as good it would have made all the difference.

He claimed that failure to be able to replenish the German horse casualties paralysed their Army transport and played a large part in their defeat.

In the 1914-18 conflict, the Germans introduced gas as an innovative weapon with which also we retaliated. A particularly brutal “weapon” was the use of caltrops or “crows feet”: these spiked metal objects, which however they fell would almost always have one point facing upwards, were distributed by the retreating German Army in the mud over roads and tracks.

When trodden on, the point would penetrate the hoof, sometimes fracturing the pedal bone and often penetrating the navicular joint. There is also evidence of German biological warfare efforts to spread both glanders and anthrax in horse and mule remounts in the Americas and also in Norway.

However, unpleasantness was not one-sided and the Germans reported on the French use of large bullets producing dreadful equine wounds, like the banned “dum-dum” bullets, and also of the Allied  use of “murderous” aerial bombs that produced severe shrapnel wounds in groups of horses as well as darts 4-5 inches long dropped in handfuls from planes, causing both bodily and foot wounds to horses.

The RSPCA and the Blue Cross animal charities both made wonderful contributions by supplying financial, material and physical help to the veterinary services of both the British and French Armies.

Another group was the volunteer AVC Comforts Fund, which throughout the war provided clothing, socks, mittens, gloves, caps, balaclavas, chocolate, tobacco – a steady supply to comfort men working in dreadful conditions.

A veterinary officer wrote, “The mud is too appalling and I am doing my best to get hold of some leggings and mackintoshes for my men. Do you know of anybody who would sell me some?”

Both dogs and carrier pigeons also played a role: thousands of pigeons were used to deliver messages. One bird, Cher Ami, part of a British consignment of 600 sent to the American army in France, was released with an urgent message after its three predecessors had been shot down by the Germans.

They made desperate efforts to get Cher Ami: one bullet broke its leg, a second damaged a wing and a third broke its breastbone, it appeared to fall, but then regained height and eventually delivered its message. It survived to live another year and after death was stuffed and put on display in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington! A minor incident in a long war but it provided a huge boost to morale.

November 1918 saw the end of “four years of mud and blood and bullets and bombs” and later that month King George V recognised the great work achieved by the Corps by conferring upon it the title of “Royal”.

In his autobiography, Sir Frederick Hobday, commenting on how much had been written about the war, added, “yet little from the point of view of the animals who were pressed into service, hundreds of thousands of which suffered untold hardships, illness, injury … and death” adding “our job as veterinary officers was not to reason why”.

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