The war years: 1915 - 1917 - Veterinary Practice
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The war years: 1915 – 1917

Bruce Vivash Jones continues his series looking back to World War 1 and the roles played by a number of distinguished veterinary surgeons, including one who became principal of the RVC.

THE horror and heart of the 1914-18 War was the entrenched struggle in Northern Europe between the Allied Forces and Germany. The subject is now history and we have to rely on the few surviving memoirs to take us closer to the actuality of battle-field veterinary practice.

This article is based on three such recollections: Frederick Hobday, a significant surgeon, later knighted and principal of the Royal Veterinary College; R. G. C. Hancock, later RSPCA chief veterinary officer and the first “radio vet”; and W. Hamilton Kirk, post war a leading small animal practitioner and author.

All these men were clinicians in the chaos of war trying to do the best for their patients, working both in the hospitals and the frontline. And also experiencing working under the senior staff of the Army Veterinary Corps.

Hobday ran the largest reception hospital on the northern front – planned for 2,000 patients but in his two years there seldom had fewer than 3,500 and sometimes up to 3,700. The staff was seven officers, two warrant officers and 631 other ranks. Hobday and one other officer provided the administration as well as working clinically.

On average, 80 horses and mules arrived daily (“torn by shell, and incapacitated by gas”) and a similar number died. In his two years in France, Hobday estimated the hospital dealt with 120,000 sick and wounded animals.

The Flanders mud, as in all accounts, dominated the scene: the hospital was frequently a swamp. It was temporary as it had to be ready to move with the front line and there were no roadways or firm standings: “it was more than pathetic to see damaged animals struggling awkwardly in the sticky quagmire”. Almost as bad was summertime: as the ground dried, any movement created clouds of dust.

Hancock (ex OTC) was called up in 1914 and immediately began to learn about Army protocol and behaviour. He was severely reprimanded by his CO when seen undertaking a rectal examination of a horse – “an officer does not appear before his men in shirtsleeves”: he should have ordered an NCO to do the job!

He found this attitude, and class distinction, to be rife in the professional officers of the AVC – they were known as “dugouts”. Many of the HQ staff officers had been taken on directly after the Boer War and commissioned on the strength of their civilian South African Service. This group was known as the “Forty Thieves” and were very different from the peace-time commissioned officers.

Teaching horse management

With a usual total of about 1,500 horses and mules under his care, Hancock found his main work was to
teach horse management, in particular diet and correct feeding. An additional problem was foot injuries, mostly due to nails on the roadways.

In Autumn 1916 the alluvial Somme mud meant that only horses and mules were capable of delivering the urgently needed supplies of ammunition to the gun positions. Many animals drowned in the mud or had to be shot as they could not be rescued. In 1917 the Germans started night bombing and Hancock recalled hearing the horses screaming in pain with their wounds.

Later, as veterinary officer to a Cavalry regiment based 30 miles behind the front line, he found most of the horses were used as polo ponies, the staff were sloppy and he was also expected to care for the regimental hounds. A disagreement about his work priorities soon resulted in his removal to another post. He wrote, “Senior officers in all branches gave the impression that they were fighting our war with a Boer War outlook.”

Skin disease

Hamilton Kirk enlisted in 1915 and after training went to France to a skin disease hospital. Equine mange (scabies) and ringworm were major problems. He was greeted on arrival at his canvas hut, already occupied by mice, by seeing outside the legs of a horse protruding through the ice of a pond.

The average hospital patient load was 2,000 horses/mules, mass treated by plunge pool immersion in “nauseous green-black” calcium sulphide, followed by a scrape down, exercising and rugged; 5-6 treatments at four-day intervals usually effected a cure.

The stabling was in open-sided corrugated iron sheds 100 yards long. Each row was specifically designated – most skin disease, but also chest diseases, surgery, etc. There was a good operating theatre, vaccine production laboratory and farrier shop. The conditions for both men and horses were dreadful – usually cold and damp.

Common problems

Additionally there were the daily problems of colic, “colds”, sore throats, fevers, lameness and contagious pustular stomatitis – all aggravated by vices such as chewing, biting and kicking. The tethered animals were bored.

Continual shortage of feed was a problem: good rations were essential for both front-line animals and those undergoing treatment. Emaciation and exhaustion were common; frequently starving horses collapsed into the mud and either drowned or had to be shot.

Feed shortages due to bureaucracy were common, but as the war continued became a matter of fact.

In 1917 Kirk was drafted to a Cavalry Brigade only to encounter the snobbish class-prejudice of his fellow officers. Having veterinary care of a column of 1,500 horses being taken to Arras he had to ride at the rear, in a sea of mud, to attend to the sick and lame.

At Arras he found he now had 2,500 horses near starvation and with standings mostly in mud. He complained to a passing General; the situation improved but not his relationship with his immediate superior!

Kirk witnessed one of the few, but ill-judged, cavalry actions of the war, and saw two divisions go into action to be mowed down by machine-gunfire as the horses stuck in the mud.

The war degenerated into a format of death and destruction with both sides introducing new technology weapons, while remaining dependent on horses and mules to service their front-line needs. But there was still another year to go…

  • to be concluded

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