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Veterinary Reserve Corps Jacket

Veterinary Reserve Corps jacket from World War I

This uniform jacket was worn by Kansan Zara McDonnall during his service in the Veterinary Reserve Corps during World War I. While animals have long been an integral part of war efforts, veterinarians are a modern addition.

Despite the fact that the military needed horses and mules to move equipment, men, and supplies, the general health of the animals was largely overlooked. Not a single veterinarian served in the army in that capacity before the Civil War. In 1861 the War Department issued an order requiring each cavalry unit to have a veterinary sergeant. The order, however, didn't require this soldier to have veterinary training. He simply cared for the animals. The Quartermaster Corps was responsible for acquiring the animals and getting them to the soldiers, but beyond that, the animals were just another supply.

As a result, horses and mules were housed in horrible conditions. The animals were purchased in large quantities and were crowded into corrals where they often stood in mud and excrement. Frequently there wasn't enough feed and they drank stagnant water from a trough. Disease ran unchecked.

Such conditions continued for decades, and could be found after the United States entered World War I. While the nation boasted of the best care for its civilian animal population, military animals still suffered from disease and hunger. Animals often arrived at a camp before the personnel did, and frequently before shelters or corrals had been constructed. Horses that arrived in poor condition were sent to the front lines. Though this may appear insignificant in a war that also used trucks, automobiles, and tanks, the success of the army depended on these creatures. Horses were able to travel over ground that vehicles could not, especially the mud-slick, shell-marked countryside. Sick and injured animals had difficulty moving men and supplies to the battlefields. Ultimately, the lack of both could result in defeat.

American veterinary organizations spoke out against the poor treatment of war animals; however, their protestations were largely ignored. It took the displeasure of the French military to change the situation. The French observed the American horses and were appalled by their health and living conditions. They didn't understand how the Americans could help them defeat Germany with such sickly animals. Moreover, they worried the diseases would spread to their own animals and eventually to the country's farm animals. If farm animals couldn't work because of disease, agriculture would suffer. There wouldn't be enough food for civilians, soldiers, or animals.

To prevent this from happening, the Premier of France organized the Franco-American Veterinary Liaison. The alliance allowed French veterinarians to inspect the American horses and mules and recommend methods of care. The first inspection revealed diseases, including strangles, pneumonia, pink eye, mange, and glanders. Supplying clean food and water could prevent most of the diseases. To encourage the American military to improve conditions, the French refused to supply the Americans with more horses. Because the U.S. needed horses, they placed an army veterinarian in Paris and the Surgeon General began actively organizing the Veterinary Reserve Corps. By October 1918, over 5000 officers were in service.

One of these soldiers was Zara McDonnall, who enlisted in 1917. In his civilian life, he worked as a veterinarian in general practice. Unlike other veterinarians who served in World War I, McDonnall had military experience, serving as a private in the infantry while he attended college. After the war, he returned to Kansas to farm. His widow donated a collection of his military equipment to the Kansas Museum of History in 1971.

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Entry: Veterinary Reserve Corps Jacket

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: October 2009

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.