Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Hooves@War: Did the Paths of This Vet and Farrier Cross in World War I?

Hooves@War on the Hoof Blog

It was called simply "Mons". The war was supposed to be a quick route for the British troops. They left in summer and boasted that they'd be home in time for Christmas. Except it didn't quite work out that way. It turned into a "world war". The war to end all wars.

The Hoof Blog found two names--one a vet and one a farrier--who had their hands on the horses at that first faceoff at Mons. Today's story tells what happened to them there.

The German Army was advancing from the east, and the British were anxious to get across the channel and come to the aid of the embattled Belgians.

Shiploads of horses motored across the English Channel, and with them were the required veterinary surgeons and farriers who would care for them.

One of the first veterinarians to arrive on the continent to serve the British horses was Lieutenant Vincent Fox, a young Irishman who had trained at the Royal Veterinary College in Ireland. After college he went to Calcutta, India, to serve in the Royal Horse Repository and Veterinary Infirmary. Among his duties would have been assisting as veterinarian at the Calcutta Turf Club. When the hospital owner died in 1914, Fox sailed for England, where he enlisted in the British Army Veterinary Corps.

Fox was sent immediately with the British horses to Mons in Belgium, but as soon as he and the rest of the British arrived, the order was given to retreat.

World War I Lt Vincent Fox
Veterinary surgeon Vincent Fox
Also somewhere at Mons with the horses was a young farrier, Sergeant Albert Driscoll of Britain’s Royal Horse Artillery. He had enlisted in 1908, at the age of 18, and received his farrier training in Woolwich, possibly near the present day site of the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery’s gleaming new forge where young farriers are trained.

When the order came to retreat, the farrier and the veterinarian received different orders. Albert Driscoll went into high gear to get more than 200 horses to safety. His nephew, Sandy Driscoll, wrote in a letter for this article, “...in the retreat from Mons and the marches following, covering over 320 miles in 16 days, then 160 miles in 7 days. With just 4 or 5 smiths and 240+ horses, must have been incredibly busy just shoeing!”

Lieutenant Fox and the horses in his care, meanwhile, were in a village called Audencourt, which was cut off. The commanding officer was determined to stand and fight; however, wounded soldiers in need of medical attention were stranded without ambulances to transport them.

Lieutenant Fox was sent to a church, the most solid building in the village. It was converted to a makeshift hospital and Fox was ordered to use his veterinary medical skills to assist the wounded soldiers.

Then the artillery fire began. On August 26, 1914, the church was hit by shells and burned. Fox’s body was later found in the ruins. He had the unfortunate honor of being the first veterinarian killed in the war. He wouldn't be the last.

According to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, "some 67 veterinary surgeons are believed to have been killed in the First World War – of whom 34 died from disease, 24 died as a result of wounds and nine were killed in action."

Royal Mail Battle of Mons
A special British postage stamp commemorated the battle of Mons this summer.

Meanwhile the horses in Fox’s care had been moved to a nearby orchard and then evacuated. Perhaps they joined up with the horses Driscoll was moving back toward Paris.

The retreat from Mons was a sobering introduction to the war for the overconfident British troops. For Vincent Fox, the beginning of the war meant the end of his life.

British farrier Albert Driscolle, World War I
Farrier Albert Driscoll
But for Albert Driscoll, it was just the beginning of a long, long war.

In 1916, Albert would add the Battle of the Sommes, one of the war’s longest and deadliest, to his resume. It is largely held that the farriers were far behind the front lines but that wasn’t always true, since they could be called forward at any time to clinch up or replace lost shoes on transport horses that constantly serviced the lines by delivering ammunition and supplies. Even behind the lines, many farriers were in stables or smithies that were hit by shells intended for combat targets.

Albert survived, but when the war was over he didn’t opt out of the military. Instead, he extended his enlistment. His records are filled with recommendations and comments commending his work with horses and his knowledge of their diseases and disorders.

Ten years, much of it in service to the British military horses in India, would go by, before Albert Driscoll took off his uniform and tried out civilian life in London as a building manager for another ten years.

His grandson wrote, “However, his reputation with horses followed him and he was often to be found in a local coal yard grooming the horses or offering traders equine advice.”

Albert’s story ended tragically and abruptly on October 10, 1940. In the middle of the night, early into World War II, his home in London was bombed, and Albert Driscoll, Royal Horse Artillery farrier, was killed.

Albert survived the first war, but not the second. He met the enemy in at least two great battles in the five-year war, but was killed in his own home, long after he’d hung up his uniform, and his hammers.
Special thanks to Sandy Driscoll, a faithful and most thorough correspondent and editor, who originally brought Albert to the attention to the National Army Museum in London during the publicity of the War Horse film, when the videos were made.

The cavalry charge at Mons by the Ninth Lancers is commemorated with a stamp by the Royal Post in Great Britain this year

The museum hosted a public competition for "real life" war horse heroes like young Albert in the book, play and film War Horse. Albert's story won the competition, or perhaps it was Sandy who won, with his careful telling of his grandfather's story through the artifacts he carried with him.

It's a pleasure and honor to work with the people who've come forward to share their family members' stories through the Hooves@War project.

To learn more:

A time for reflection: Lieutenant Vincent Fox in the RCVS Knowledge Library Blog by Clare Boulton
The Real Albert and His War Horses

Hoofcare Publishing's Hooves@War tells the stories of people who served their nations and horses during World War I. Many stories are only partly told because very few facts are known, but enough are available to make you marvel at the times, the decisions, the vast distances and the gravity of the war. Farriers and veterinarians played critical roles at the front and behind the scenes. They deserve remembrance. Their names and their stories should be kept alive.

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