Until the end of the 18th century there was no veterinary service at all in the British Army. Farriers, contracted by the British government, were responsible for shoeing Army horses and providing medicine and general care. However, continual heavy losses of horses during the military campaigns of the late 18th century led to the decision in 1796 that veterinary surgeons for the army should be recruited from the newly formed London Veterinary College.
For the first 82 years of its existence the veterinary service in the army was organised entirely on a regimental basis. Veterinary surgeons were directly recruited into cavalry regiments and wore the uniform of the regiments they joined. There was no provision for the care of sick or lame horses when regiments were on the move and sick animals were either abandoned or became stragglers at the rear. The Peninsular War was the first time that an attempt was made to deal with this problem and sick horse depots were established.
As with medical provision for the soldiers, the veterinary care of horses during the Crimean War was wholly inadequate. There was no co-ordination between veterinary officers and no proper system for treating sick and injured horses. Many horses died as a result of poor management during transport by sea, the severe winters of 1854 and 1855 also resulted in many deaths as well as the fact that veterinary equipment and medicines were inadequate even by the standards of the day.
Under the administration of James Collins, Principal Veterinary Surgeon between 1876 and 1883, the regimental system of employing veterinary officers was finally abolished. In 1880 the Army Veterinary School was formed at Aldershot where combatant officers were trained in the care and management of Army animals, the selection of remounts and basic veterinary first aid. The school also trained veterinary officers in military duties and particularly the tropical diseases that were prevalent in army animals. The Army Veterinary Department was formed in 1881 and from then on the conditions for veterinary surgeons improved and by 1890 the Department had a serving officer as its head.
The enormous animal losses during the Boer War highlighted the problems that the veterinary officers were already aware of. In 1898 provision for the care of sick and injured animals was removed from the revised war establishment and the British Army left for South Africa without any efficient veterinary provision. Against professional advice, the remount depots and veterinary hospitals were combined and inevitably there was a rapid spread of diseases such as glanders, epizootic lymphangitis and mange, which was hugely detrimental to the army’s operational efficiency. Improvements came too late and 326,000 horses and 51,000 mules were lost, with only a small minority as a result of enemy action.
Following the mistakes from the Boer War there was huge pressure for the reform of the Army Veterinary Service from all quarters including the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, politicians and the general public. In 1903 a Warrant created an Army Veterinary Corps of NCOs and men employed in veterinary duties and in 1906 it combined with the Army Veterinary Department to become recognisable as the RAVC of today. In 1907, Major General Sir Frederick Smith became Director General and was dedicated to improving the efficiency of the AVC, reorganising the territorial force and introducing modern veterinary equipment.
At the outbreak of World War One there were 364 AVC officers (Regular and Reserve) during the war a further 1,306 were commission and by 1918 almost half of the veterinary surgeons in Great Britain were serving in the AVC. In addition to officers, the expansion of other ranks rose from 934 to 41,755.
Mobile veterinary sections were established to evacuate sick and wounded animals to the veterinary hospitals where they could be treated. A typical veterinary hospital in France could take 2,000 patients. Most animals suffered from battle injuries, debility, exhaustion, mange and, for the first time, gas attacks. The success rate was high; two and a half million animals were hospitalised in France and of those 2 million were returned for duty, the remainder were either sold locally or slaughtered for human consumption. In Egypt there were also separate camel hospitals under the command of AVC officers with specialised knowledge of camels. Other innovations included the establishment of four schools of farriery. Although dogs were used as messengers across the trenches of World War One the AVC was not directly involved.
On 27 November 1918 King George V conferred the Royal prefix to the Corps in recognition of the work of the AVC In a letter of congratulations the Quartermaster General wrote, ‘The Corps by its initiative and scientific methods has placed military veterinary organisation on a higher plane. The high standard which it has maintained at home and throughout all theatres has resulted in a reduction of animal wastage, an increased mobility of mounted units and a mitigation of animal suffering un-approached in any previous military operation.’
Following World War One the RAVC underwent rapid demobilisation and as mechanisation progressed the RAVC reduced in size. In 1938 the Army Veterinary School in Aldershot closed after 48 years.
At the outbreak of World War Two there were 85 officers (59 of whom were in India) and 105 soldiers, this increased over the course of the war to a total of 519 officers and 3,939 other ranks. Even with the increased mechanisation of World War Two horses and mules were still essential means of transport, most notably in Palestine and the Italian campaign where terrain made it impossible for vehicles. In 1942 the strength of military animals was 6,500 horses, 10,000 mules and 1,700 camels. The RAVC also had a presence in Greece, Eritrea and Syria and, as well as pack transport, were responsible for the local provision of livestock for slaughter, meat inspection and the rearing of livestock. The Italian campaign was the only one where RAVC units operated in the dual role of evacuating animal casualties and issuing replacements. In addition to the mules shipped over from North Africa and the Middle East there were almost 11,000 mules purchased in Sicily and Southern Italy. Battle casualties among mules in Italy were higher than had been anticipated, whilst losses from infection and contagious diseases were lower.
As well as horses and mules, in Burma General Wingate also used bullocks, which were utilised as pack animals but were also ‘meat on the hoof’. Elephants were also used as transport and forest clearance. Because of the nature of the campaign in Burma, animals receiving serious battle wounds could not be evacuated with the result that many that might have recovered had to be shot.
In 1942 the Army Veterinary and Remount Service became responsible for the procurement of dogs for all services and the War Dog Training School was established.
In the aftermath of World War Two, the RAVC was involved in many countries, notably Germany, Austria, Greece, Burma and Malaya, in the disposal of surplus animals, the prevention of the spread of disease and animal husbandry. The RAVC also required a permanent depot and moved to the old Remount Depot at Melton Mowbray in 1946, where it remains to this day as the Defence Animal Centre.
The RAVC did not fall to pre-war levels as World War Two had highlighted the role of dogs, which took over from horses and mules as the main military animal (the last operational pack transport unit was eventually disbanded in Hong Kong in 1976 although recent operations in Afghanistan have questioned the need for pack transport in difficult terrain). In Malaya and Borneo, during the 1950s and 1960s, dogs worked as tracker dogs seeking out insurgents. In Northern Ireland dogs have worked as arms and explosive search dogs seeking out terrorist arms and explosives, a role they are also carrying out in Iraq, and in Hong Kong dogs were trained to detect and apprehend illegal immigrants. However the main role is still one of protection reducing the number of soldiers needed for guard duties. The RAVC has permanent dog units in Northern Ireland, England, Germany and Cyprus.
The RAVC is one of the smallest Corps in the British Army yet provides invaluable support to the Army’s animals and serves worldwide with them today.