Total Pageviews

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

War Horse: Veterinarians Supporting Animal Health in Wartime

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.
The commitment of both American and Japanese army veterinarians to the health of horses and mules who served in the Burma theater (1941-44) became evident in my interviews with veterinarians from both sides. American veterinarian Kenneth Gumaer spoke of his role in transporting 267 mules in the hold of a ship that left New Orleans in December 1943, was torpedoed off the coast of Florida and endured such heavy seas in the transatlantic crossing that many mules developed massive hematomas. “We only lost one mule in the entire 87-day crossing”, he proudly reported.

Japanese veterinarian Dr. Takehiko Takahashi describes his role in
transporting horses from China to Burma during WWII.
Dr. Takahashi died in 2011 at age 94.
Photo by author, 2010.
Japanese veterinarian, Dr. Takehiko Takahashi, encountered different challenges with his load of horses that left China in 1941. Despite his protests, the ship left port before the horses could be vaccinated, and he recalls another boat chasing them down and hoisting the life-saving anti-Strangles serum onto the deck where he vaccinated the horses in transit. To prevent the animals from succumbing to the sweltering heat and humidity of the ship’s hold as they coursed through the South China Sea, Dr. Takahashi fashioned a series of hoists to periodically raise the horses onto the deck for ventilation and exercise.

Both Drs. Gumaer and Takahashi related the unimaginable horror on the mountainous trails and jungle passages in Burma. Starvation and parasites took huge tolls on the lives of both man and beast. Animals carrying heavy packs sometimes lost their footing on the narrow mountain trails and fell to their death. Many Japanese horses were killed by low level strafing of British aircraft.

By the time the victorious American forces captured the key airfield of Myitkyina from the Japanese in spring 1944, only one-third of the thousands of mules had survived. All of the Japanese horses died.

War Horse is a cogent reminder that the military exploits of warring nations exact an enormous toll on animal life and that the veterinary care for all military animals―it is more likely to be dogs now than horses―is as essential today as it was during conflicts of previous decades.

On Veterans Day, pause to remember the animals that are casualties of mankind's wars. And as the Holiday season approaches, consider seeing the spectacular show, War Horse. It plays at Lincoln Center in New York City.

Dr. Smith invites comments at