Blog by Donald F. Smith, DVM, Cornell University
Posted November 8, 2011, in honor of Veterans Day
Animal lovers are captivated by the elegant puppetry of the Tony award-winning play, War Horse. The turning of the horses’ ears, the movements of their heads and muzzles, the expressiveness of their eyes all lend pure magic to an otherwise serious drama.
Albert is a young British boy who becomes separated from his horse, Joey, when British troops need horses on the fighting fields of France during World War I. Joey is caught in German fire and becomes entangled in barbed wire deliberately set to ensnare the horses. Captured by the enemy, Joey then serves for the German army until he finally ends up in no-man’s land where Albert (now a youthful soldier) is reunited with his injured friend.
Up to six million horses were used in World War I. They carried munitions and pulled heavy artillery and wagons, and conveyed men and supplies. The loss of life from combat injuries was horrendous, but millions more succumbed to disease and starvation. As in the American Civil War, where it is estimated that one million horses and mules died, the tactical value of a horse was sometime considered greater than that of a soldier.
Just as physicians were critical to the health of soldiers, veterinarians were deployed in the war effort to care for horses and other animals. Also like their human medical counterparts, there were veterinarians on both sides of the conflict. This becomes evident in War Horse when the injured Joey is attended to by both English and German veterinarians.
World War I was the last major international conflict in which horses were considered essential to all aspects of the war effort. By the Second World War, horses had been largely replaced by armored vehicles, airplanes and other motorized equipment.
There was at least one major exception, however, and that was the China-Burma-India campaign where both Allied and Japanese forces used mules (U.S.) and horses (Japan) to traverse the almost impenetrable jungles and mountains of Burma.
|U.S. veterinarian Dr. Kenneth Gumaer attends to a pack mule|
on the trail in Burma, 1944. Photo provided by Dr. Gumaer.
Dr. Gumaer died in 2008 at age 88.