To mark the centenary of the end of World War I, we bring you a story of conflict, misunderstanding, trust, work and friendship. The story of the soldiers and their mules.

British soldier with mule
© IWM (Q 1592) A British Soldier and Mule on the Western Front
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The photo above gives us a glimpse of a British soldier in the trenches alongside his beloved mule. The caption, written on the back of the picture, reads, ‘She may be stupid, but I love her very much.’ This says so much about the relationship between the mules and the men that handled them.

Imagine a young soldier’s thoughts and feelings when the glory of going to war suddenly became a harsh reality. This photograph, taken in the trenches of France in 1914 is simply entitled ‘Desolation’. Surrounded by destroyed farm machinery, mud, death, and constant drudge, few things would provide this soldier with comfort or a reminder of home.

But one link with the way of life back home would be a man’s comrades, not least the equines conscripted to serve alongside him. Many of the British men would have been from rural backgrounds where working with horses was still common place.

At the beginning of the war, the British Army owned just 25,000 horses but within a few weeks they purchased, or conscripted, another 165,000. Sadly, the horses did not fare well in the beginning of the war: hundreds of thousands lost their lives. Many through direct injury from shelling and gunfire, but also due to malnutrition, disease, exhaustion and exposure.  The trenches were harsh places for humans but they were even harsher for the horses that worked alongside them. They had no shelter, little food and were constantly exposed to terrifying weaponry.

In answer to many of these issues, the British Army looked further afield to the equine hybrid, the mule. Although the French and many other European countries had a good history of working with mules, they were not understood or appreciated by the British. By the end of the conflict, however, the British Army would be the owners of nearly 250,000.

Fifth Battle of Ypres Royal Artillery limbers and pack mules of the 29th Division on the Menin Road at Hooge, 1 October 1918. Note a crater in the foreground.
© IWM (Q 11796) Fifth Battle of Ypres. Royal Artillery limbers and pack mules of the 29th Division on the Menin Road at Hooge, 1 October 1918.
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Why Mules?

The mules came were notorious bad tempers, stubbornness and a tendency to kick. It’s easy to see why many people questioned their purchase by the British Army. Yet mules are the toughest equine to brace the planet. Not only do they possess physical vigour, but mental capacities in excess of both donkeys and horses.

Along with their intelligence, mules have the strength and speed of a horse combined with the endurance of a donkey. They are hugely disease resistant, they’re able to function on less food than a horse of the same size and they are very thirst tolerant. They’re incredibly sure-footed with small, tough feet that are able to cope in varied terrain and they display extreme self-preservation; they do not startle easily and they do not make futile exertions.

Arrival of the mules

There weren’t many mules available in Europe at the beginning of the First World War, so many hundreds of thousands of mules and horses were purchased from the US, a fair amount coming from the State of Missouri. The mules spent weeks aboard ships, and many were sadly lost on the journey, often after being torpedoed by the enemy who realised their value to the allied forces.

 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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Unfortunately, for those that survived the crossing, the beginning of life in Europe was not always a happy one. Many of the mules fell under the care of inexperienced handlers, some had no experience of equines at all and others were expert horsemen who found the differences a real challenge.

There was a 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.’

The lack of understanding of the mule’s temperament and need for patience and trust undoubtedly caused problems. Many of the methods used by the armed forces were barbaric. Set against the backdrop of a bloody war, life was not easy for either species. Indeed, many of the stories, poems and pictures of mules used during the First World War, did not display a very happy companionship.

Mules at War

The lack of understanding was difficult for both sides and the men would not have got the best out of their ‘long-eared monsters’. Thankfully, many individuals did learn to work well with the mules and they became known as ‘the muleteers’.

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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As time moved on, the men’s thoughts and feelings began to change - they truly began to rely on mules. Their ‘long-eared charges’ began to become known for their positive physical and mental attributes rather than the negatives. Mules are incredibly stoical, no-nonsense animals and when given a job they will always do it to the best of their ability.  

They carried food, weaponry, and other much needed supplies. With shell attacks and gunfire common place in the trenches, it’s no wonder that many horses in particular were lost, injured or mentally scared by the terror of warfare. Often, when fleeing, horses would lose the precious cargo. If frightened, a mule will rarely bolt or panic like a horse; they will more likely study the situation before responding. It became well known that if you wanted your cargo to be safe, then the best place to have it was on the back of a mule. 

Mules were also used to transport injured soldiers from the battlefield to field hospitals during huge battles, but were never used for cavalry work as they could never be persuaded to charge headfirst into battle. Some may say, they were far too sensible.

Lest we forget

Through close contact and living together, the soldiers and their mules learnt respect for one another. The handlers depended on their mules and they lived cheek-to-cheek. Indeed, many developed huge pride in their relationship with the mules. As time went on, the value of mules became well-known to the troops.

“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 conditionss, 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

 Men of the Royal Naval Division feeding a pet mule born during the campaign with cocoa
© IWM (Q 13640) Men of the Royal Naval Division feeding a pet mule (born during the campaign) with cocoa.
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Those who worked alongside equines during WWI knew exactly how essential they were. Compassion and empathy between man and mule were seen many times throughout the conflict.

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?

On the centenary of Armistice Day, let us never forget the sacrifices of these brave men and their mules.

Neddies of Remembrance

Help to support The Donkey Sanctuary and The Royal British Legion as we remember those lost in conflict