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The History of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps

               The Canadian Army Veterinary Corps was first established in 1910 as a regimental system within the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. Following the South African War from 1899 until 1902, many military officials recognized a need for a permanent veterinary care on the Front. Historians, C. Trenton Boyd and Bruce V. Jones 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] This loss was well documented with its organization and supply of resources thoroughly scrutinized. For the first time, many realized how vital veterinarians were to securing a strong force at war. Historian, Margaret Derry argues, “military dependence on horses led the army to rely on veterinarians.”[ii] This dependency is often overlooked in favor of a focus on mechanization or the animals themselves.


               The establishment of the Veterinary Corps allowed the Canadian Expeditionary Forces to combat injury and contain, and prevent disease on the Front. Colonel G.W.L Nicholson argues, “regimental veterinary officers with the aid of farriers of the regiments concerned, was found to be utterly inadequate for the requirements of war on a large scale.”[iii] The limited number of veterinarian’s involved in the war was largely inefficient to treat the sheer number of horses involved in the Allied efforts. No one anticipated the length or costs of the Great War.


               The Great War witnessed the death of approximately 7.5 million soldiers fighting on all sides over the course of the war.[iv] Andrew McEwen, one of few historians looking at this topic in present day outlines that between August 1914 and November 1918, “five hundred thousand horses and mules serving with the British Empire Units also lost their lives over the course of the war.”[v] These numbers are very significant. How is it possible that such a large contributor to the war effort has been neglected in the narrative of most World War One histories?


               A horse was man’s comrade in war. They required the necessities of life similar to soldiers. Horses needed water, food, shelter, and rest while at risk of being over worked. They were responsible for transportation lines, carrying heavy artillery, ammunition, delivery of supplies, and ambulances to the Front while facing enemy fire and the spread of infectious disease. According to Major-General Sir L.J. Blenkinsop and Lieutenant Colonel J.W. Rainey on one occasion in 1917, animals on all Fronts totalled over 1,000,000 of which 436,000 were in France. Therefore, it became increasingly difficult to provide veterinary care on such a vast scale.


               Leading up to the war, many believed it would only last a few months. The preparation of the veterinary corps reflected this mentality. Supplies were short lived and trench warfare forced living conditions one could not dream of. Horses experienced the same dreadful conditions as soldiers. Therefore, maintaining the integrity of the horse, a significant contributor to the war effort (through transportation and combat) was crucial to the overall war effort. Before the outbreak of World War One, horses and other work animals were a crucial aspect of combat because traditionally, cavalries significantly contributed to the war effort. However, this was not the case for the World War One battlefield. Horses faced miserable conditions alongside soldiers. However, they were often overlooked. Sometimes soldiers even overlooked the horse under their supervision. Guidelines for the CAVC Officer outline specific occasions where veterinarians were encouraged to intervene and demand that the soldier feeds or allows the horse water.[vi] Best practice and promoting every day care was crucial to the wartime veterinarian. Tamblyn acknowledges the success of his comrades on the Front when he states that following the war, horses under Canadian care were in good shape and free of disease.[vii]  As a result, the Belgian government bought every Canadian horse that remained in Europe in a direct deal with the Canadian government. 


               The CAVC was responsible for returning 80 percent of the animals under their care to active duty.[ix] In their official history of the CAVC, Major-General Sir L.J. Blenkinsop and Lieutenant Colonel J.W. Rainey outline that the chief causes of mortality among animals in the First World War were:

  1. “Battle casualties, other injuries and surgical conditions; destruction for old age, premature physical decay, and blindness.

  2. Debility and exhaustion.

  3. Respiratory diseases.

  4. Mud-borne diseases, such as ulcerative lymphangitis and gangrenous dermatitis.

  5. Trypanosomiasis (in East Africa)

  6. Glanders, including destruction of reactors.

  7. Intestinal diseases.”[x]

               Certain anomalies exist within these conclusions that allow for a sudden influx. For example, the increase of respiratory disease among heavy draft horses in 1915. A similar instance occurred in the spring of 1917, when “during arduous military operations in severe weather, the annual rate of mortality among animals with the British Expeditionary Forces rose to over 25 per cent.”[xi]


               The chief causes of mortality in animals were significantly impacted by the ability for a solider to care for their horse as they moved and fought throughout the war. Major-General Sir L.J. Blenkinsop and Lieutenant Colonel J.W. Rainey outline the most prevalent reasons for a horse to suffer from debility and exhaustion includes:

  1. “Shortage of water or food, or both.

  2. Overwork.

  3. Exposure during cold, wet, weather.

  4. Bad Animal Management.”[xii]

Blenkinsop and Rainey further argue that in France the “overwork of animals involved in dragging guns and vehicles over relatively short distances of intensely heavy ground.”[xiii] Whereas, in other areas, long forced marches of troops might be the most exhausting feat for horses. However, it is very difficult to ensure water and food for a horse when soldiers were advancing.


               The First World War became a platform for sharing veterinary knowledge to ensure the success of the Allied Forces as a whole. National boundaries became blurred lines. Veterinarians shared knowledge and took measures to prevent future outbreaks of disease or avoidable injuries without national barriers. A horse was taken to the nearest veterinary hospital for treatment regardless of its nationality. This allowed an international platform for preventative measures, testing and innovative treatments to develop at a rapid pace. For example, Captain Tamblyn acknowledges in his book on famous horses that he urged all soldiers to pick up the nails that fell on the ground when opening French ammunition boxes. This might seem like a small preventative measure.[xiv] One must consider the number of ammunition boxes that circulated in supply lines and on the Front and the impact this number had on the surrounding environment. Tamblyn promoted this practice while fighting beside different nationalities within the Allied Forces. He argued that it would significantly decrease any injury to horse hoofs or shoes. This would therefore allow veterinarians and farriers to allocate their efforts elsewhere.


               According to Blenkinsop and Rainey, on average, a force of 10,000 animals would require 200 animal reinforcements each week to “maintain establishments.”[xv] Therefore, it was crucial that veterinarians take measures to prevent the spread of disease to the remaining million horses (approximate). However, there was “wide differences of opinion that existed as to the nature and causes of disease, it was decided, in the spring of 1915, that [the thoracic form of influenza, a] variety of pneumonia would very properly form the subject of special veterinary research, but unfortunately the research required for this research did not then exist.”[xvi] Since 75 percent of the horses shipped from America and Canada were infected with the “shipping fever”, it was necessary for veterinarians to be certain of the cause.[xvii] Therefore, soldiers relied on the spread of word and military commands to advance veterinary medicine to ultimately maintain the integrity of a vital part of the war effort.


               Blenkinsop and Rainey outline that eventually the following facts were established that led to specific commands with regards to practice. [xviii]



































                The CAVC is a truly unique unit of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces throughout the First World War. However, their extreme importance is overlooked because of a focus on the animals themselves and the process of mechanization. Few recognize the contributions of the horses in World War One and subsequently the veterinarian who maintained the integrity of this work force.  


                By the end of the war, 130,000 horses had been transported from Canada to assist in the war effort overseas. In a period where 82,000 horses were transported overseas, 42,000 joined the British Army, 15,000 joined the French and 25,000 joined Canadian units.[xix] Few horses returned to Canada. The concentration of horses in France and Britain at the end of the First World War was staggering. The disposal of horses following the war was a difficult task. Canada made a deal with Belgium to buy the remaining Canadian horses. The Belgian government did so because of the outstanding health traditionally exhibited by the horses under Canadian care. Captain Tamblyn later stated that this negotiation should act as “a feather in the caps of the Canadian troops who were responsible for their care.”[xx]  























[i] C. Trenton Boyd and Bruce V. Jones, “Postcards from the Front,” Veterinary Record 176, no. 8 (February 21, 2015): 192.


[ii] Margaret Elsinor Derry, Horses in Society: A Story of Animal Breeding and Marketing, 1800-1920 (University of Toronto Press, 2006): 229.


[iii] Nicholson, Official History of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in World War One, 23.


[iv] Andrew McEwen, “He took care of me”: The Human Animal Bond in Canada’s Great War as found in Susan Nance’s The Historical Animal, 272.


[v] McEwen, “He took care of me”, 273.


[vi] Sir L.J. Blenkinsop & J.W. Rainey, History of the Great War Based on Official Documents: Veterinary Services.


[vii] Ibid.,.,  70.


[ix] Lisa Cox, “Finding Animals in History: Veterinary Artifacts and the use of Material History”, 113.


[x] Sir L.J. Blenkinsop & J.W. Rainey, History of the Great War Based on Official Documents: Veterinary Services, 513.


[xi]  Ibid.,.,  513.


[xii]  Ibid.,., 513.


[xiii]  Ibid.,., 513.


[xiv] Tamblyn, The Horse in War, and Famous Canadian Horses, 60.


[xv] Sir L.J. Blenkinsop & J.W. Rainey, History of the Great War Based on Official Documents: Veterinary Services, 509.


[xvi] Ibid.,.,  516.


[xvii]  Ibid.,.,  452.


[xviii]  Ibid.,.,  517.


[xix] Steve Harris, chief historian of the directorate of history and heritage at the Department of National Defence as found in “Morning Glory: Canada’s Own WWI War Horse - Canada - CBC News.”


[xx]Tamblyn, The Horse in War, and Famous Canadian Horses, 70.

From Blenkinsop & Rainey's History of Veterinary Services in the Great War published in 1925.

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