A Trio of Mules
Three mules and three army muleteers stand for the camera somewhere along a wide river in Europe, location unknown. The men are soldiers in the uniform of the American Expeditionary Force of 1918, but their names are unknown. The mules are standard issue but might easily be of Spanish, French, or American origin. They were secured by the Remount Service of the U.S. Quartermaster Corps which supplied the American troops with everything from food, equipment, uniforms, and even laundry service. Though the Great War is usually depicted as modern mechanized warfare with powerful battleships, submarines, airplanes, Zeppelins, and tanks, there were many aspects to the conflict that were no different than the warfare of ancient times. The common mule was still the favored pack animal to move military supplies to the battlefield.
The AEF commander, General John J. Pershing (1860-1948), rode a horse as a young cavalry officer in New Mexico and Montana, and as a general he undoubtedly recognized that mules were essential to efficient military supply. By the end of 1918, the Remount Service had purchased 135,914 horses and mules from the French, 21,259 from the British, and 18,462 from Spain to add to the 67,725 received from the United States which made a total of 243,360 livestock serving the American campaign.
Most of these draft animals were mules, the offspring of a male donkey (jack) and a female horse (mare). A mule is favored as being more patient and sure-footed than a horse, and more intelligent and faster than a donkey. But they also can carry more weight than a horse while subsisting on less fodder. This excerpt on British Army mules comes from Gallipoli’s War Horses by Jill Mather (2014).
Mules required less food than horses. They were more tolerant of extreme heat and cold, and they could go for longer periods without water, critical in battle where clean water was so scarce. Mules were proven to be more resistant to diseases and disease-bearing insects, very low maintenance and seldom needed shoes. Less than half the mules died from infected bullet holes compared to the percentage of horses killed. The first ship of animals departed (England) in November 1914, and in the four and a half years of war 287,533 mules and 175 jacks were purchased.
The three soldiers may have been part of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps. a service that had just been established in 1916. When Pershing and the first US troops arrived in France in May 1917 they neglected to include any veterinary personnel. It soon became apparent that veterinary hospitals would be vital to caring for the many animals needed for the war effort. Once America joined the war, the army procurement office immediately put out orders for hundreds of escort wagons, combat wagons, drinking water wagons, dump wagons, buckboards, ration carts, and horse ambulances. All drawn by horses or mules. Transporting these animals overseas required specially outfitted ships with careful attention to food and water. Once in port they were put onto livestock rail cars that took them to resupply depots before they were assigned to the front lines.
The typical American transport ship only held 500 to 800 animals. Considering that American forces were only effectively in the war for 6 months, the Remount Service moved an extraordinary number of animals with minimal casualties. But the allied powers of Britain, France, Italy, Russia, as well as the central powers of Germany, Austria/Hungary, and Turkey consumed hundreds of thousands of draft animals during the full course of the war. This map comes from a book entitled: First World War Atlas by Martin Gilbert (published 1970) and shows where Britain secured horses and mules during the war.
|Map of Allied Horses 1914-1918|
Source: First World War Atlas by Martin Gilbert (1970)
By 1918 the British forces alone had 475,000 light draught (draft) horses and mules engaged in the war. Statistics of the Great War of course focus on human causalities, but just on the Western front, the British lost over 256,000 animals who died during the war. Mules carried packs of food and water, pulled wagons, and hauled munitions and weapons over terrain that the motorized trucks of 1914-18 were incapable of negotiating. More information on the wartime contribution of these wonderful animals can be found at WarMule.org.uk
This next video comes from a newsreel made during the war and shows a line of British soldiers and pack mules crossing a very rocky slope. The location and date are unknown, but the un-level landscape is certainly not some field in Flanders and looks more like an Italian mountain range to me.
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Mules are still useful in mountainous terrain and the US Army added mules to a few units deployed in Afghanistan. But military muleteers may soon exchange traditional skills with pack animals for training with modern robotic technology. A company called Boston Dynamics is working on a new military vehicle that is a mechanical robot mule. This video shows a test in rugged California desert hills and in deep Boston snow of the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), a four-legged robot that can travel 20 miles on rough terrain while carrying 400 lbs of load.
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The company has also just released a lighter weight model called Spot, a four-legged robot designed for indoor and outdoor operation. It is electrically powered and hydraulically actuated. Spot has a sensor head to help it navigate and negotiate rough terrain.
At one point in this video, I guarantee you will go, "Aww! How can they mistreat it like that!"
Mules, whether natural or artificial, never get the respect they deserve.
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This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where images of more traditional horses can be found.