As we pay our respects to those fallen in times of war, we look back to the mules, donkeys and horses that went into battle with British troops and often sacrificed their lives alongside them.

World War One: Walking in the hoof prints of fallen warhorses

At the beginning of the First World War, the British Army owned just 25,000 horses. Nowhere near the amount they would require on the front line, they purchased or conscripted another 165,000. Sadly, the horses did not fare well: hundreds of thousands lost their lives within a few weeks.

Both at home and in war, donkeys and mules were called upon to pick up the shortfall in horses. Given the sheer number of horses transported to the front line, donkeys were called on to sustain labouring and agricultural industries at home in Great Britain.

On the front lines, the British turned to the mule to carry out the work of warhorses that had died. By the end of the First World War, the British Army owned around 250,000 mules.

British soldier with mule
© IWM (Q 1592) A British Soldier and Mule on the Western Front
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Mules in the war effort

Using mules in place of horses was not plain-sailing for British troops; a lack of understanding of the mules' temperament, and their need for patience and trust, caused problems for both mules and men in the early days. Thankfully, it was not long before many individuals learnt to work well with the mule, becoming known as 'the muleteers'.

The mens' 'long-eared charges' soon became revered for their physical and mental strength in the most testing of conditions. Respect for mules was paramount when working with them, giving rise to a war-time saying: "The men that began to work with mules either began to work with patience or trust or they ended up in the field hospital."

Mules carried food, weaponry, and other much-needed supplies on the front line. If frightened, a mule will rarely bolt or panic like a horse; they will more likely study the situation before responding. It became common knowledge that if you wanted your cargo to be safe, then the best place to have it was on the back of a mule.

 Italians unloading a mule from a ship at Salonika.
© IWM (Q 32504) Italians unloading a mule from a ship at Salonika.
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Lest we forget

Living cheek-to-cheek in the direst of circumstances, the soldiers and their mules developed a great respect for one another.

"My life, and that of the regiment, was saved by our mules. We were so dependent upon them to deliver the goods of war. They survived terrible, wet battle conditions, better than the horses. I have worked with mules, donkeys, and horses, but be assured that the mule will be going long after the others have given up. Even upon reduced rations, mules didn't fall sick and were incredibly brave under fire." Anonymous, WWI veteran.

Perhaps one of the most important things that mules gave their soldiers was companionship. They were a friend who didn't answer back, didn't judge, and listened to many a desperate tale. What better companion for the darkest of days?

Army Veterinary Corps staff preparing to shoe a mule at a British Army veterinary hospital near Salonika April 1916.
© IWM (Q 31915) Army Veterinary Corps staff preparing to shoe a mule at a British Army veterinary hospital near Salonika, April 1916.
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World War Two: Turning to a trusted ally

On 1 September 1939, the world plunged into another six years of warfare. As men marched to war, large numbers of mules went alongside them.

Despite the mechanisation of the British Army in World War Two, mules still played an essential part in conflict areas that were inaccessible by vehicles. Mules were invaluable as pack animals and could cover great distances that were impossible for vehicles to traverse.

They played an essential role in the mountains of Italy, the jungles of Burma and other battlegrounds. They helped to pull artillery and to transport supplies to the troops who needed them.

Mules and soldiears preparing for the big "push" during WW2
(United States Army Signal Corps / Public domain) The men, mules, and armour of the 10th Mountain Division of the US Fifth Army supporting tank units on 14 April 1945. Bologna, Italy.
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Prized and protected

Ben Hart, Senior Lead of Behaviour and Human Behaviour Change at The Donkey Sanctuary, says: "It is almost impossible to convey in such a short piece the true contribution of these creatures to the struggles of man.

"They were flown in gliders to front lines of the Fight in Asia and even parachuted out of Dakota aircraft when it was found they could be ready to be loaded within 15-20 minutes of being dropped.

"They were so prized that sick or injured mules were often flown out from behind enemy lines for treatment."

The animals were vital in providing British soldiers with food, weaponry and retrieving the injured and dead from the battlefield.

However, it was not just these sacrifices on the front line that made these mules so valuable. After agricultural vehicles had been requisitioned and petrol had been rationed, mules and donkeys played a pivotal role in feeding the nation, helping to till the fields and deliver produce.

These hardworking animals would pull the ploughs and work machinery to ensure farming carried on.

British Medical Services with mules in WW2
Gurkas with their mules swimming across river in WW2
Mules hauling ammunition in WW2
Left: British Medical Services with mules carrying wounded soldiers. Top right: Gurkhas with their mules crossing river. Bottom right: Mules hauling ammunition.

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