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Training U.S. Army Veterinary Medicine Personnel in The Great War

Nancy Cramer, BJ, MA, Ed. Spec.
Journalist and Author

In 1916 the United States Army recognized a drastic shortage of trained veterinarians and their assistants should the United States become involved in the European war. The use of horses and mules to move men and equipment in warfare was still the main source of power, and maintaining the health of those animals was of utmost importance. The use of trucks and other mechanized vehicles had begun in France, but the new machines had many problems and supplying them with gasoline was also problematic. Thus, the United States Army established three veterinary schools, which opened early in 1918.

German officers in an automobile pass a convoy of horse-drawn wagons and soldiers
German officers in an automobile pass a convoy of horse-drawn wagons and soldiers

A school at Fort Riley, Kansas, was designed for enlisted men to attend. The school at Camp Greenleaf, Georgia, was created to train both veterinary doctors as commissioned officers and enlisted personnel, as was the third school at Camp Lee, Virginia. A strict set of requirements for certification and obtaining the doctorate level was designed, and the curricula reflected these demands. At Camp Lee, in addition, the training was to prepare men to organize and equip units for overseas duty. Fort Riley was able to complete basic training for 540 men, many of whom continued on at Camp Lee. The schools and training, however, extended beyond the end of the war and was a good example of “closing the barn door...” Camp Greenleaf produced 655 graduate veterinarians with 86 of them commissioned and the remainder eligible for commissions. Unfortunately, again, the date of their availability was November, 1918, thus, after they were actually needed in the field of war. In all, U.S. Army Veterinary Corps statistics shows that 1,269 officers and 9,786 enlisted men completed some sort of veterinary training.

It must be acknowledged that forming the Veterinary Corps while drafting and training two million soldiers and officers at the same time was a daunting task for any nation - and time was short. The pre-war army consisted of about 120,000 men and many of them had to be returned from the southwestern states where they had been engaged in a punitive action against Pancho Villa’s ragtag army. Others were scattered in various parts of the world. What was needed when General Pershing took command of the AEF and set into motion the formation of a formidable army would challenge any commander.

Camp Greenleaf, Georgia
Camp Greenleaf, Georgia

Mistakes were made in all areas of the AEF, but lessons were quickly learned which, in particular, created a stable, reputable Veterinary Corps. The army had assumed, as they did with the training of the infantry and artillery, that veterinary assistants could be rapidly produced, with the small amount of training they received at Camp Lee supplemented at the various veterinary stations in France. This led to less than adequate animal care in substandard conditions and likely caused the loss of more animals than otherwise might have been the case.

Another problem plaguing the Army was that trained civilian veterinarians were few, and once in military service they had to accompany animal hospital or replacement units only. This left a shortage of veterinarians at home for the farmers, whose job was to breed and raise replacement animals for shipment abroad. Prior to the war, the Army had less than 75 veterinary officers, none of whom had had any military training. Since many were sent overseas, this left a shortage also of veterinarians to staff the new schools being established. Still the army was not discouraged, even though the need for veterinarians grew exponentially in a matter of weeks, not months. They also had to think about maintaining the reputation of the AEF in the eyes of the experienced British and French veterinary corps.

Recruitment poster depicting soldiers helping an injured horse out of an
Recruitment poster depicting soldiers helping an injured horse out of an "animal ambulance"

Despite these difficulties, within a six -month time period from April, 1918, to November, 1918, Camp Lee alone was able to train 393 officers and 7,968 enlisted men. This was enough personnel to staff fifteen veterinary hospitals, one base hospital, six Corps Mobile Veterinary Hospitals, three Army Mobile Veterinary Hospitals and four Veterinary Replacement Units. At The Armistice in November 1918, ships were being loaded for six more animal hospitals of different kinds, and there were plans for twelve additional units.

The U S Army can be proud of its accomplishments in the rapid development of the Veterinary Corps. At the beginning of the war, not even buildings were available, much less the staff, training plans, teachers, and a set of goals devised by the military. Furthermore, all plans were dependent upon swift passage by Congress of funding legislation. As a comparison in numbers with the pre-war situation and the status of the Veterinary Corps in 1918, consider what the Army consisted of. For each horsed-regiment there were only 2 officers to provide animal medical care and 17 officers to inspect animals and meats.

General Pershing, after cessation of hostilities, praised the devoted hardworking Veterinary Corps, saying,

Now that active operations have ceased, it gives me a great deal of pleasure to express my thanks...with insufficient personnel and laboring under severe handicaps...the care of our animals was one of the most important required skill, foresight, patience and perseverance...your zeal led you into research...(with) valuable discoveries concerning the nature and cures for equine diseases....

Even though the war had ended, the Veterinary Corps was just beginning to build its service, now that the need had been demonstrated so vividly. They designed the future training for candidates who had to pass both physical and professional examinations. After passing courses of five to six months each, they would be commissioned at 1st lieutenants. They would study the theories of what they would apply in practical training. It would even include veterinary bacteriology and pathology; diagnostic and biologic laboratory methods; meat and milk hygiene; military veterinary medicine, emphasizing communicable and parasitic diseases, and regional surgery. The opportunity for research in animal diseases would provide an important part of their learning as well.

American recruitment poster for the Veterinary Corps
American recruitment poster for the Veterinary Corps

All this learning would take place at a camp or post where a major mounted command was stationed to allow students access to a large number of animals. Also included were plans to train enlisted men in various branches of the veterinary service.

Officers, in addition, would study a program including administration of animal hospitals; equipment; evacuation methods; surgical and medical clinics; communicable diseases in all aspects of diagnosis and treatment; handling horseshoeing instruction; conformation; breeding; manual of small arms; map reading and other military training as might be needed in wartime. The result would be a military officer who knew how to manage and provide for the safety of both his men and their animals, under both peacetime and wartime conditions.

By the end of WW-I the Veterinary Corps had, largely, attained its goals and, even to this day, functions at a level of excellence equal to the Medical Corps itself.

Background information from “The History of the U.S. Veterinary Service, A.E.F. During WWI, Report”
Images are from the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

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