100th Anniversary Of U.S. Entering WWI: Equestrian Heroes Of World War I And The Plot To Poison Them April 6 marks 100 years since the U.S. entered World War I. Years before, the U.S. supported the effort by sending over thousands of horses, which were so important that Germans plotted to kill them.

The Unsung Equestrian Heroes Of World War I And The Plot To Poison Them

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A hundred years ago today, the United States entered World War I. Congress voted to declare war on Germany. By the time it ended, there had been a staggering death toll - more than 17 million people worldwide. The soldiers who did return often had horrific injuries and emotional trauma. As this year's anniversary approached, NPR's Sarah McCammon went to Newport News, Va. She wanted to find out what happened to the vital support animals that were deployed from the region to serve alongside the troops.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Today, the waterfront in Newport News is full of condos, office buildings and shipyards. One hundred years ago, this was a bustling seaport serving the allied war effort.

CHRISTOPHER KOLAKOWSKI: You can get a sense here the immensity of the harbor and why this is such a desirable port.

MCCAMMON: Christopher Kolakowski is director of the MacArthur Memorial. He says Newport News was ideally situated on the east coast near rail lines and waterways.

KOLAKOWSKI: You're not quite as crowded as New York, so it's a tremendous asset.

MCCAMMON: At least a quarter million troops embarked from here during the war years and so did several hundred thousand horses and mules. Animals were shipped to allies in Europe even before the U.S. entered the war. Lynn Rainville is a professor at Sweet Briar College. She says animals were usually the best option for moving people and supplies at a time when motorized vehicles were still in their infancy.

LYNN RAINVILLE: Non-mechanized animal beasts of burden were crucial for the very, very rough conditions of the roads and any transport routes that horses - or these four-legged animals - could maneuver better than the then tanks and cars and trucks.

MCCAMMON: Horses and mules were so valuable, Rainville says, that Germans devised a plot to sicken some of them as they waited in the pens at Newport News. The plot to spread anthrax and a naturally occurring disease called glanders was developed by Anton Dilger, an American of German descent and a German sympathizer.

RAINVILLE: Anthrax and glanders are so virulent that if he could infect them before they loaded onto the ships that by the end of their journey, most if not all of the mules would probably be dead.

MCCAMMON: Dilger's plot, which came to light after the war, was not successful, says Robert Koenig, author of a book about Dilger. He says the weak link may have been dockworkers who were paid to secretly infect the animals but may not have followed through as instructed. Koenig says this early attempt at germ warfare was just one of several ways the Germans targeted animals.

ROBERT KOENIG: They actually tried blowing up a train at one point that was carrying horses. And they went out to various stockyards in the Midwest, but that didn't prove terribly effective.

MCCAMMON: Still, disease was a constant threat to the horses living in close quarters.

BILL BARKER: Let's see.

MCCAMMON: Bill Barker is an archivist at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News. He's been sorting through a trove of letters from a soldier stationed here during the war, Joe Harlin, to his parents in Missouri. Barker reads from a yellowed letter from 1918.

BARKER: Everything is just the same as usual at the hospital - that's the veterinary hospital at the animal embarkation depot - just as many sick horses as ever.

MCCAMMON: Those animals that did survive their time at the stables and their journey across the ocean often died of malnutrition, exhaustion or enemy fire, alongside the human soldiers who fought in the trenches of World War I. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Newport News, Va.


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