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History of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps

Origins of the RAVC

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, 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 with the establishing of sick horse depots.

Inadequate care

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.

Late 19th century

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, particularly in dealing with the tropical diseases prevalent in army animals.

The Army Veterinary Department was formed in 1881 and from then on the conditions for veterinary surgeons improved. By 1890 the Department had a serving officer as its head.‍

Animal losses

The enormous animal losses during the Boer War highlighted problems 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 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. 326,000 horses and 51,000 mules were lost, with only a small minority as a result of enemy action.

Formation of the Army Veterinary Corps (AVC)

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. Then in 1906, it combined with the Army Veterinary Department to become recognisable as the RAVC of today.

Major General Sir Frederick Smith who became Director General in 1907 was dedicated to improving the efficiency of the AVC, reorganising the territorial force and introducing modern veterinary equipment.‍

Casualty evacuation

At the outbreak of World War One there were 364 AVC officers (Regular and Reserve). During the war a further 1,306 were commissioned 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. 

In Egypt there were also separate camel hospitals under the command of AVC officers. Other innovations included the establishment of four schools of farriery. On 27November 1918, King George V conferred the Royal prefix to the Corps 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."

A changing role

Following World War One the RAVC reduced in size. When World War Two began it increased again. For example, by 1942, the number of military animals in service stood at 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 campaign where RAVC units operated in the dual role of evacuating animal casualties and issuing replacements.

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.

1945 onwards

After World War Two, the RAVC was involved in many countries. They prevented the spread of disease and looked after animal welfare. In need of a permanent depot the RAVC moved to Melton Mowbray in 1946, where it remains to this day as the Defence Animal Training Regiment.

Post War, the RAVC's focus moved onto military working dogs which took over from horses and mules as the main military animal. For example in Malaya and Borneo during the 1950s and 1960s, dogs worked as tracker dogs seeking out insurgents. In other operations dogs worked as search dogs seeking arms and explosives. Their main role to this day is still one of protection, reducing the number of soldiers needed for guard duties.

The RAVC is one of the smallest Corps in the British Army yet provides invaluable support to the Army’s animals and serves with them worldwide today.

Summary

Colonel-in-Chief: The Princess Royal KG KT

Corps Day: 25th June

Date of Royal Warrant: 27th November 1918

Current Representative Colonel Commandant: Maj Gen Z R Stenning OBE

Find out more about the RAVC

History of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps

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