The Canadian Army Veterinary Corps.
in World War One
The CAVC is often left in the shadows of other World War One narratives. Veterinarians often become a subtopic of animals at war or popular histories with varying truths. Nevertheless, there are three different schools of thought pertaining to the CAVC. Historical writers documenting the history of the CAVC first took an empathetic and passionate tone. These writers were often senior military officials who sought to record the records of their comrades in a manner that justifies the existence of the CAVC. These accounts act as official histories, histories commissioned by the government. The second school of thought focusses on the popularization of histories and the stretched truths associated with Winnie-the-Pooh and the War Horse. These popular histories often lose the perspective of the veterinarian in favour of the animal. The third group relies on modern veterinarian’s portrayal of their ancestors to discern their experience throughout history and record the development of their profession. These three schools of thought are each of great value. However, all three are very sympathetic to the nature of the CAVC and often have a compelling tone that is continuously substantiating themselves and the CAVC’s existence.
Official histories provide an intricate, statistical analysis that provides the historian with great detail. Major-General Sir L.J. Blenkinsop and Lieutenant Colonel J.W. Rainey published their official history of the CAVC in 1925. This comprehensive history provides detailed information about the CAVC from the late nineteenth century up until the end of the First World War. This is particularly interesting because it allows the reader to observe a discussion regarding preparation and organization leading up the war. The tone in this book makes one question how prepared the CAVC’s leaders felt and how able they were to supply their men with enough equipment to increase their contributions to the war effort. It is possible that Blenkinsop and Rainey felt ill prepared as leaders of the CAVC, unable to provide certain materials to their officers. However, modern historians Boyd and Trenton argue, “the Army Veterinary Corps (AVC) was prepared because there had been a military and public reaction to the horrific loss of horses in the South African War (1899-1902).”[i] Blenkinsop and Rainey agree with Boyd and Trenton. However, they further argue that this preparedness was short-lived because no one realized the extent of the First World War.
Blenkinsop and Rainey rely on their experience, as Veterinary Officers, to justify the CAVC’s existence in its entirety and efforts throughout the First World War. Whereas, Captain Tamblyn and Captain T.A Girling rely on the individual experiences of their comrades, the horse. Tamblyn records significant moments that affected the horse’s experience at war (method of building stables, picking up nails from shell boxes). Whereas, Girling records a poem about his noble yet, “Dumb Heroes” in Ypres, 1916. The overall tone in these histories leads the reader to conclude that the CAVC was essential to the overall war effort. However, many chose to document their experiences through admiration for their comrade, a comrade that was facing the same conditions. This tone is very different then that presented in popular histories.
The history of the Veterinary profession in general has largely been written by veterinarian’s themselves. Therefore, it makes sense that veterinarian’s would also record their history of the First World War. However, in doing so these histories often rely on a previous understanding of veterinary practices. In 1999, C.A.V Barker and Ian Barker, a father-son team of Veterinarians, edited the unpublished, official history written by Cecil French. Barker and Barker argued that this was necessary because given the attention the CAVC has received in history, “the C.A.V.C might have been the Secret Service.”[ii] Barker and Barker further argue that following the death of the last surviving C.A.V.C Officer in 1985, “[C.A.V.C officers] wanted their story told, and it now can be, the politics, personalities and perceptions that caused its apparent suppression having faded.”[iii] This statement strongly suggests why it is imperative that we objectively interpret the history of the CAVC. J.B. Derbyshire, a fellow veterinarian, justified the Barker’s publication of Cecil French’s work when he illustrates that French’s inclusion of a chapter on animal welfare organizations that supported the C.A.V.C originally led to the “suppression” of his manuscript.[iv] This is important to note because it reflects the official ambitions of the army. Colonel A. Fortescue Duguid preferred a narrative that reiterated colonial values. These values did not allow for any interpretation of weakness. Barker and Barker further argue, “knowing what we know of the quality of the leadership of the C.A.V.C., and the opinion of it held by many veterinary officers, it easily can be argued that French was not critical enough.”[v] However, it is clear that after French was appointed to the Historical Section of the Militia Headquarters in Ottawa, he resigned following a disagreement with his superiors “regarding the tone and content of the history.”[vi] The history of the CAVC deserves to be the subject of an objective analysis, one that relies on context and varying perspectives. This remains a necessity because the interim between official histories and modern objective histories focussed on popular histories.
Popular histories such as Winnie-the-Pooh and the War Horse often convey inaccurate historical truths in favour of blockbuster storylines. The town of White River, Ontario, home to A.A. Milne, the writer of Winnie-the-Pooh, commemorated Winnie-the-Pooh in the form of a commercialized statute (Insert link). Whereas, Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo took a unique approach in honouring a member of the C.A.V.C., Harry Colburn. This idea of honour is evident throughout the language on the plaque and the tone of the statute, as Coleburn, dressed in full military attire, offers a hand to Winnie (Insert link). The heroic nature of this statute is synonymous with the first official histories written about the CAVC. However, this interpretation is greatly overshadowed by the War Horse. This is simply because unlike the commercialization of Winnie-the-Pooh, War Horse literature has sought to convey a truth. This is the partially the result of many veterinarians choosing to document the experiences of their horses over themselves.
The War Horse is the most documented aspect of World War One history in relation to the Veterinary Corps. Michael Morpurgo’s original rendition of the War Horse in 1982 presents a unique children’s story about how British horses aided the war effort and the relationship between a horse and his owners. This simplistic rendition became a blockbuster movie in 2011. The British focus in this movie overwhelms other national agendas. However, this is the result of a much more extensive historiography of British and American literature.
Considering these three schools of thought, please navigate this website as you see fit.
[i] C. Trenton Boyd and Bruce V. Jones, “Postcards from the Front,” Veterinary Record 176, no. 8 (February 21, 2015): 192.
[ii] C.A.V. Barker & Ian Barker, ed. A History of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps in the Great World War 1914-1919 by Cecil French, (Guelph: Crest Books, 1999), xv.
[iii] Barker & Barker, A History of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps in the Great World War 1914-1919 by Cecil French, xv.
[iv] J. Derbyshire, Review of French, Cecil, C. A. V. Barker, and Ian K. Barker, A History of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps in the Great World War, 1914-1919, Guelph: Crest Books, 1999: 330.
[v] Barker & Barker, A History of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps in the Great World War 1914-1919 by Cecil French, xvii.
[vi] Ibid., xxi.