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The Services 1930 - 1956:

Royal Army Veterinary Corps

A veterinary service has been part of the British Army since 1796, mainly due to the use of horses by the army for transportation and in battle.  Until that date, farriers had been employed by the British government to shoe Army horses, and to provide equine medicine and general care of animals.  The heavy losses of horses on military campaigns overseas led to the recruitment of veterinary surgeons from the London Veterinary College.

Initially, veterinary surgeons were recruited directly into individual cavalry regiments, and were members of that regiment.  They only cared for horses within their regiments, so sick and lame horses were often abandoned when the regiment was on a campaign.  As with many other aspects of the British Army, veterinary care was found to be wanting during the Crimean War.  The severe winters of 1854 and 1855 claimed the lives of many horses, and the care for them was poor.

James COLLINS, the Principal Veterinary Surgeon of the Army between 1876 and 1883, was responsible for the formation of the Army Veterinary School at Aldershot in 1880, and the abolition of the regimental system of employment of veterinary surgeons in 1881.  It was in 1881 that the Army Veterinary Department was formed, but during the Boer Wars, or South African Wars as they were known, the provision of veterinary services was poor.  Infectious disease spread through the animals in the British Army, resulting in the loss of 326,000 horses, and 51,000 mules, of which only a small number resulted from enemy action.

There was pressure for reforms as a result of the South African wars, in particular from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.  In 1903, a Royal Warrant created the Army Veterinary Corps of non-commissioned officers and soldiers that were deployed on veterinary duties.  Three years later, it was combined with the Army Veterinary Department, as the Army Veterinary Corps, and in 1907, the first Director-General, Major General Sir Frederick SMITH was appointed.

In August 1914, there were three-hundred and sixty-four officers (Regular and Reserve) in the Army Veterinary Corps (A.V.C.), and by the end of the war, there were an additional one-thousand, three-hundred and six officers commissioned.  In 1918, about half of all the veterinary surgeons in the U.K., were serving in the British Army.  In addition, the other ranks rose from nine-hundred and thirty-four in 1914 to forty-one thousand, seven-hundred and fifty-five in 1918.  During the war, two and half million horses were hospitalised, with two million being returned to duty.  In Egypt, the A.V.C. dealt with camels.  In recognition of its war service, on 27 November 1918, King George V conferred the prefix ‘Royal’ to the corps, which became the Royal Army Veterinary Corps (R.A.V.C.)

After the First World War, the R.A.V.C. was reduced significantly in size.  As mechanisation was introduced into the British Army in the late 1930’s, and in 1938, the Army Veterinary School at Aldershot was closed.  In September 1939, there were just eighty-five officers (of whom fifty-nine were serving in India), and one-hundred and five officers.  By the end of the war, this had risen to five-hundred and nineteen officers, and three-thousand, nine-hundred and thirty-nine other ranks.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the British Army was the most mechanised army in Europe.  Although the German Army had about seven armoured divisions (while the British only had one), it relied heavily on horses for transport supplies and to haul artillery guns.  The U.K. did raise one Cavalry division in 1939, and the German and French Armies also had cavalry divisions at this period.  R.A.V.C. personnel supported the 1st Cavalry Division in Palestine, headed by a Lieutenant Colonel.  This division relinquished its horses in 1941, by which time, the last horsed cavalry divisions of the Indian Army had been mechanised.  Even so, the British Army still made use of animals for military purposes.  In 1942, there were six-thousand, five-hundred horses, ten-thousand horses, and one-thousand, seven-hundred camels.  Mules were used extensively in Italy and Burma, as well as Eritrea and Abyssinia in 1941, Greece in 1941 and 1944/5, Syria and Palestine.

In 1942, the R.A.V.C. became responsible for the procurement of dogs for military service, and a War Dog Training School was established.  After the war, the old Remount Depot at Melton Mowbray became the permanent depot of the R.A.V.C., and it remains so today.  Dogs are now just as important as horses for the British Army, and the R.A.V.C. remains an important, albeit small, part of the modern army.

Within the British Indian Army, the Remount and Veterinary Service dates back to the East India Company.  Local breeds of horses were found to be unsuitable, being small, sickly and of poor physique.  Studs of suitable military horses were established in each of the three Presidencies (Madras, Bombay and Bengal) in 1793, but a lack of veterinary surgeons meant that the breeding experiments were not a success.  Those studs in Madras and Bombay closed down, but that in Bengal continued in operations.  One reason that the stud in Bengal continued was the appointment of William MOORCROFT, joint head of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.  The first Indian Army Veterinary officer was appointed in 1821, and he took on the training of other veterinary officers.  The Army Remount Department came into being in 1875, for the purchase, rearing and issuing horses and mules for the regiments of the Indian Army.  This replaced the old silladar system, where regiments had bought their own horses for the regiment.  Officers had to buy their own horses.

The Indian Army Veterinary Department was established in 1884 to oversee veterinary matters throughout the army.  Following the Great War, the Army Veterinary Corps was raised on 14 December 1920.  In 1925, this was rationalised into the Indian Army Veterinary Corps, and it was Indianised, i.e., Indian personnel were recruited into the Corps, from 1935 onwards.  On 15 April 1947, just a few months before partition, the Army Remount Department and the Indian Army Veterinary Corps were merged to form the Indian Remount and Veterinary Corps. The Military Farms Department was closely aligned to the Veterinary services in the Indian Army.  ‘Farms’, as they were known, was formed as part of the Commissariat Department on 7 June 1884.  It became a separate department in 1925, responsible for ensuring there was adequate fodder for military animals, and diary produce for military personnel.  Its remit widen to support Indian agriculture and animal husbandry across the country.

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