My question is inspired by the final episode of "All Creatures Great and Small" where James Herriot gets his call up letter to fight for Britain in World War Two. My question is: was this realistic? I would have expected that a Veterinary surgeon such as Herriot would have been protected from call ups. Part of providing food and resources would surely have been people with the skills to keep livestock healthy. That would have been like other protected professions like my grandfather who was a market gardener.

Was the show All Creatures Great and Small accurate to call him up? Or am I right to say that he would as a veterinary surgeon have received protection?

  • At least to "fight" the Brits' pets. Commented Jun 27, 2019 at 18:01
  • Thats amazing. I will add to the useless campaign to get people to hand in their pots and pans for 'military metal' lol Commented Jun 27, 2019 at 18:03
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    Why do you doubt the existing narrative? What research have you done? How is the WIkipedia entry inadequate? Or Alf Wright "In 1969, he wrote If Only They Could Talk, the first of the series based on his life as a vet and his training in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. "??
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 27, 2019 at 18:06
  • 14
    Basically all the armies in WWII used animals (horses, mules) in various theaters of war. There would need to be vets.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 27, 2019 at 18:07
  • My memory of the book was that both had volunteered as normal airmen. The book later states that Christian (lucky as allways) after completion of his studies became a Officer Veterinary in India. Commented Jul 20, 2019 at 14:56

1 Answer 1


You are right to suspect that veterinary surgeons would be exempted from conscription as regular soldiers in the UK, during the Second World War. However, they would have served first as volunteers in their capacity as medical professionals and later as conscripted professionals in their field.

Such professions or occupations that were deemed important to the working of the national economy so as to be exempted from conscription were referred to as Reserved Occupations. The 1939 list of Reserved Occupations as determined by the Ministry of Labour to Parliament can be found here. As you will note on page 30 of the document in the right hand column, veterinary surgeons are considered a reserved occupation with no age restriction. However, as you can see on page 3 of the document it is indicated that:

Nothing in the Schedule restricts—

(c) acceptance for whole-time service in war in the volunteer's trade or professional capacity ;

Emphasis mine. This means that should the person wish to volunteer in their capacity of reserved occupation they may do so and serve in said occupation.

Now the list of reserved occupations changed throughout the war. An example of this being coal miners, which were not considered as having a reserved occupation at the outset of the war if they were aged 18-23 or 18-25 depending on their exact job. Understandably, this led to a deficit in men working in the mines and a corresponding decrease in output, the government, in December 1943, then allocated one in ten conscripts to coal mining to alleviate the problem see this link for more about the so called Bevin Boys.

In the case of veterinary surgeons the change in their status of a reserved occupation came in 1943. From A Short History of the Royal Veterinary Corps:

Until 1943 the Reserve Army, the Territorial Army and volunteer civilians provided the additional veterinary officers required. Then the huge expansion of pack transport for the campaigns in Burma and Italy led to an increased demand for veterinary officers that could only be met by imposing a form of conscription on the profession. Some 500 officers served with the RAVC during hostilities, most of them veterinary surgeons.

So James Herriot seems to have been called up due to the opening of the Burma and Italy campaigns in 1943 and the change in conscription which that brought about. Thousands of mules, horses, camels, dogs and even elephants would require professional care. Not to mention that it would also sometimes fall under the corps duties to inspect and tend to the animals that would become soldiers' meals.

Note: Thanks to Stuart F. for pinning down the date that the change in conscription happened for veterinary surgeons.

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    I appreciate your keenness - but I just removed the CIA tag from one of your edits. Tags should reflect the topic of the question, not everything that might be mentioned in passing. Thanks very much. Commented Jun 27, 2019 at 22:41
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    Just to add to the above, here's a short history of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. It mentions that early in the war the army relied on reservists and volunteers as veterinarians but from 1943 started conscripting veterinarians. journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/003591577606900204
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jun 28, 2019 at 13:36
  • Good find Stuart F. That particular change may well be what is referenced in the series.
    – BOB
    Commented Jun 28, 2019 at 13:39
  • This is a very good and thorough answer to the question. Yes, in India and Burma, lots of animals were used. As a teenager in the 1950s I once heard a man who had served under Wingate tell of his experience of crossing the Irrawady - holding to the tail of a mule. When they ran out of food they ate the mules.
    – WS2
    Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 22:06
  • google.co.uk/…
    – WS2
    Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 22:10

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