‘A stupid mule is still smarter than a good horse, or a bad man’

The horse looms large in our popular memory of the Great War. This is perhaps based more on myth than fact; drawing upon romantic symbolism of the horse that goes back long before 1914, and a raft of more general Great War mythology, but the horse’s part in the story is represented nonetheless. Yet whilst the contribution of the horse is undoubtedly fascinating, for me it is his less glamorous cousin, the mule, who was the real equine hero of the Great War.

Let’s face it – the mule (the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse, for those less familiar with our four legged friends) has had to contend with some pretty bad PR over the years. They have a reputation for being stubborn, bad tempered and just plain unkind. Yet as Captain Sidney Galtery wisely notes, the mule is despised only by those who do not know him. If indeed the mule was nothing but a beast of burden, his poor character simply tolerated, then surely he would not have been by our side for millennia? Indeed, what sets the mule apart from the horse and the donkey are his physical attributes combined with his personality. He is both more intelligent and diligent than the horse, in addition to being tougher and more resistant to illness and disease. It is these characteristics which made the mule an invaluable resource during the Great War. So, I’m here to make the case for the mule and to revamp his public image by sharing a little of his story…

At the start of the war, mules were not popular in Britain and the QMG (BEF) deemed them unsuitable to replace light draught horses in the British Army. But with the increasing demand for hoof power on the front, and the pressure placed on the remount department by the end of 1914, imported mules were being trialled as horse replacements. Muling the British Army was an international affair, the majority were sourced from North and South America – the US being the most mule affluent nation, with the British importing over 250,000 American mules during the course of the war. The majority of these were used as pack and transport animals, and soon the British Army realised the value the mule, particularly in ammunition columns – not only are mules stronger than horses of a similar size, but they are far less prone to disease and injuries.

A mule team hauling supplies to British positions in the hills, Salonika, 1915. © IWM (Q 31593)

Due to their adaptability, mules worked exceptionally well in all theatres. Where the horse struggled with for example, the wet and mud of Flanders or the arid conditions of the Middle East, the mule faired much better. As Lt Graham McKay of the Royal Artillery wrote from Mesopotamia:

There is not one artillery officer who would ever again prefer horses to mules after this

The practical benefits the mule provided were obvious – they needed less fodder and were more reliable than the horse, the correspondence of one transport officer claiming the mule to be the ‘most valuable and useful beast‘ substantiated by one estimate that 3/4 of ammunition used during the 3rd Battle of Ypres was delivered by mule, yet only 1 mule for every 4.5 horses was invalided. It was not just their physical superiority that endeared the mule to the soldier. Their intelligence and personality was also well documented, Alexander Thorburn’s brief account in Amateur Gunner provides a nice summary of the mules mental agility:

If a horse gets his leg over a rope or chain, he will struggle and kick until he has lamed himself.. your mule, however, stands perfectly still until a picket, in passing, notices his trouble and puts the chain in place, and does himself no harm whatever if left entangled

Alexander Douglas Thorburn, Amateur Gunners

Men came to admire the uniquely stoical and hard working character of the mule, too. Of course they were not universally popular – to treat a mule as it were a horse would be a mistake – and their superior intelligence meant that mule management was somewhat of an art. But once understood, the mule would be far more willing to do what was asked of it, until the bitter end.

© IWM Q1592

Though the mule was much praised, his worth proved beyond doubt during the war through his versatility and endurance, the British Army was not be persuaded to officially adopt the mule in place of the light draught horse.

By virtue of his looks, and the stigma of his hybrid birth, the mule largely remains a silent partner in the ‘war horse’ narrative, but I hope this brief summary provides some explanation as to why I find myself more drawn to story of the mule in the Great War than any other animal. And if you have not been won over by our protagonist in this short post, perhaps this poem will tip the scales:

Musings of a Mule

I am only a common or garden mule
Who was bred in the U.S.A.
I was born in a barn on a Western farm
Many thousands of miles away
From where I am munching a Government lunch
At Great Britain's expense to-day.

With dozens of other I knew, and have seen, 
In my Little Grey Home in the West, 
Where the grazing was succulent, luscious and green, 
And Life was a bit of a jest, 
I have sniffed the salt breeze blowing over the seas
And I've landed in France with the rest.

The journey was horrid – a horrible dream
Was the loading – its shindy and row 
And the people expecting a moke to be keen 
To swarm up a frightening “brow”
And slither down ramps that were greasy and damp 
To a standing unfit for a cow. 
 
They packed us like herrings ‘way down in the hold, 
With never a thought nor care 
For animals worthy more Government gold 
Than all of the rest who were there;
And the best spot, of course, was reserved for the horse,
Who had to have plenty of air.
 
Well, we jibbed and we strafed and we kicked the Light Draught 
And I planted my heels in the hide 
Of a man on the ship who was flicking a whip 
And whose manners I could not abide;
But I've travelled so often since then in the trucks 
I have learnt how to swallow my pride, 
And I go where I'm put without lifting a foot 
For a rag song and dance on the side.
 
Many months at a time I was up on the Somme
In the rain and the mud and the mire:
We were "packing" the shells to the various Hells 
In the dips of the vast undulations and dells 
Where the field guns were belching their fire. 
 
It was very poor sport when the forage ran short 
First to eight and then six pounds a day, 
But we managed to live on the blankets they brought,
Though blankets I now think, and always have thought, 
Are but poor substitution for hay.
 
I remember a week when we played hide and seek 
With the shrapnel the Boches sent over;
I remember the night when they pitied my plight,
And pipped me, and put me clean out of the fight 
With a "Blighty" - then I was in clover. 
 
For they dressed me and sent me quick out of the line 
To a hospital down at the Base 
Where the standings were good and the weather was fine 
And the rations were not a disgrace:
There, just within sound of the Heavies I found 
La France can be quite a good place. 
 
And now I've recovered - I'm weary and thin 
And I'm out of condition and stale, 
My ribs are my hips are too big for my skin
And I've left all the hair on my tail 
On the middlemost bar of the paddock I'm in, 
For they turned me out loose, as I'm frail.
 
Now the life in a paddock according to men 
Is a sort of a beautiful song 
Where animals wander around and can squander 
The time as they wander along, 
With nothing to worry them, nothing to do 
Except for food intervals daily; but you 
Can take it from me they are wrong,
For paddocks are places conducive to thoughts 
That settle unbid on the brain,
And often I find them to follow a kind 
Of a minor-key tune or refrain 
As I doze for an hour in the afternoon sun 
Or I stand with my rump to the rain 
I dream of the barn on my Illinois farm 
And I long to be back there again 

- L. L. L. L., Base Indian Remount Depot, B.E.F., France. 

4 thoughts on “‘A stupid mule is still smarter than a good horse, or a bad man’

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  1. Great blog, Lucy, and really interesting. My Grandfather served as a Driver with RFA during FWW and what little collective memory there’s left between his surviving children, seems to recall him working with mules.

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  2. Great post. Thank you. Glad to see you found Galtrey. It’s a great book.

    I’m not sure whether you have read any of my work yet? There is a growing interest in mules, and I have spoken about them at two recent conferences. Links below:

    https://www.academia.edu/41750615/Most_Frightful_People_How_Mules_Earned_their_Names_in_The_Great_War

    https://www.academia.edu/38080681/_A_Weapon_in_the_Hands_of_The_Allies_Transporting_British_Army_Horses_and_Mules_during_The_Great_War

    Also my book. This also now contains many references to, and discussion of, mules:

    https://www.routledge.com/Soldiers-and-Their-Horses-Sense-Sentimentality-and-the-Soldier-Horse/Flynn/p/book/9780367894702

    If you do use any of my work, or material you’ve sourced via my work, please could you reference it and provide a link? Much appreciated. 😀🐴

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    1. Of course Jane (finally picked up your e-book in the sale – bloody marvellous!)

      My copy of The Horse and the War is one of my most precious books! I am still trying to decide on my dissertation but think mules will feature heavily. x

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      1. That is great news!

        ‘The Horse and the War’ is also one of my most treasured books. It travelled with me to Hong Kong numerous times during my PhD. (Always in my hand luggage of course.) I’m sure Sidney Galtrey would never have imagined his book could rack up those sort of air miles!

        Good luck with your dissertation. Keep me posted.

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