Charity at the frontline of war horse care still helping animals in crisis


As a new war is being waged in the form of a global pandemic, an animal charity is continuing the work that it began more than 120 years ago and proved crucial during two world wars.

Even before the “Great War” — World War 1, Blue Cross has been helping horses and other animals caught up in war, with work on the front lines of the Balkan War in 1912-1913.

Under its original name “Our Dumb Friends League”, the charity set up animal hospitals on the front lines of WW1 in France and Italy and provided essential veterinary kits to soldiers for their horses.

“The Blue Cross Fund”, led by Mr Arthur Coke, worked tirelessly to raise cash towards helping animals at home and overseas in wartime. The war-time hospitals and animal ambulances, marked with a blue cross to distinguish them from the ambulances for injured soldiers, were funded to collect horses needing urgent treatment on the front lines.

A Blue Cross animal ambulance at work on France.
A Blue Cross animal ambulance at work on France.

By the end of WW1 in 1918 more than 50,000 horses were treated in Blue Cross hospitals in France alone and veterinary supplies were gratefully received by more than 3500 units of the British Army – many letters of thanks were received from the front.

Blue Cross funds also cared for the dogs who were trained to seek out the wounded, pull injured men on carts through trenches to first aid stations and lead men who were blinded to safety. From 1917 the charity also took sole responsibility of caring for 18,000 war dogs used by the French army.

Many soldiers befriended war dogs and were devastated to be forced to leave them behind if they couldn’t afford the quarantine fees. Blue Cross stepped in to offer kennels for dogs needing quarantine and reunited them with soldiers after the six months was up. Many were so grateful for the charity’s help they wrote moving letters of thanks to Blue Cross relaying their joy at seeing their beloved four-legged friends again.

An injured horse in WW1 awaiting a Blue Cross Ambulance.
An injured horse in WW1 awaiting a Blue Cross Ambulance.

In World War Two the charity’s help was needed again and staff regularly worked long and exhausting hours risking their lives to rescue pets from dangerous bombed buildings and rubble during the Blitz, bringing them back to the animal hospital for emergency treatment by candlelight during blackouts.

The final year of war in 1945 saw a record number of more than 200,000 animals helped by the charity nationwide. Pets whose owners were in active service were also cared for in the kennels, with their owners visiting them when on leave. Quarantine kennels were again provided for pets from overseas, including those of refugees who could not bear to leave their pets behind. Owners made homeless due to bombing could also place their pet in care with many volunteer foster carers stepping to help pets without a home – much as they continue to do today.

Soldiers in service and grieving war widows on a low income were supported by the charity who paid their dog licence fees to help them stay together; even then Blue Cross knew the support and comfort pets give to their owners is invaluable.

A mule getting treatment at a Blue Cross hospital.
A mule getting treatment at a Blue Cross hospital.
Early beginnings

“Our Dumb Friends League” formed in 1897 and has been crucial to the lives of millions of animals since its early work helping the working horses of London. Special fundraising efforts provided water troughs placed all over the capital and ‘trace’ horses to assist weaker horses carrying heavy loads up steep hills. The Blue Cross animal hospital in Victoria, London opened in 1907 to help both working animals and pets of owners on a low income and is thought to be the first of its kind in the world.

"The Blue Cross Fund" raised funds to build animal hospitals and ambulances for use during WW1.
“The Blue Cross Fund” raised funds to build animal hospitals and ambulances for use during WW1.

The charity changed its name to Blue Cross in the 1950s.

Today, the charity continues to support pet owners in need and helps thousands of sick, injured and homeless pets and horses every year. It cares for more than 40,000 pets every year across 11 rehoming centres, four rehoming and advice units and four animal hospitals. As a charity, it receives no government funding and relies on donations from animal lovers to continue its vital work.

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