As millions of people prepare to honour the fallen heroes of World War Two this coming VE Day, we remember the thousands of mules who provided invaluable support to the soldiers who fought for our freedom.

These trusting animals were utilised as pack animals to move valuable medical supplies to and from the front line, and transport injured soldiers to the medic tents.

They have many of their parents' best traits, and it was the British Army’s experience with mules in World War One which saw these animals used again in World War Two.

Mules in World War One

At the beginning of the World War One, the British Army owned just 25,000 horses but within a few weeks they purchased or conscripted another 165,000.

Tragically, the horses did not fare well in the beginning of the war – hundreds of thousands lost their lives.

As a result, the British turned to the mule in order to carry out the work of war horses that had either perished or could not handle the rigours of the front line.

By the end World War One, the British Army owned 250,000 mules.

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: Gurkas with their mules crossing river. Bottom right: Mules hauling ammunition.

Turning to a trusted ally

On 1 September, 1939, six years of war began with what became known as World War Two.

Not only did men march to war, but alongside them, there were still large numbers of mules going into battle.

Despite the mechanisation of the British Army in World War Two, mules still played an important part in the areas of conflict which were inaccessible by vehicles.

Mules were invaluable as pack animals and able to cover great distances that was impossible for vehicles to reach. 

They became just as important in World War Two in the mountains of Italy, the jungles of Burma and in other countries for pulling artillery and transporting supplies to where they were needed. 

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 our 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 – they were used to feed the nation, tilling the fields alongside donkeys as agricultural vehicles were requisitioned and petrol was rationed.

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

Despite their historic significance, mules are still used today due to their ability to understand hardships and perform work too taxing for other pack and draft animals.