Used with permission by The Blue Cross

Only a dying horse! pull off the gear,
And slip the needless bit from frothing jaws,
Drag it aside there, leaving the road way clear,
The battery thunders on with scarce a pause.

Prone by the shell-swept highway there it lies
With quivering limbs, as fast the life-tide fails,
Dark films are closing o’er the faithful eyes
That mutely plead for aid where none avails.

Onward the battery rolls, but one there speeds
Needlessly of comrades voice or bursting shell,
Back to the wounded friend who lonely bleeds
Beside the stony highway where he fell…

A Soldier’s Kiss by Ian McFarlane

The War Horse and Mule

The use of the bicycle and motorcar pre 1914 war caused a drop in horse population in Britain. The building of the depleted equine population came from the rolling plains of America and Canada.

My father-in-law was in the Royal Canadian Army Veterinary Corps. He told me how the horses, corralled in the bowels of the ships fighting the strong Atlantic waves, would panic, collapse, and would subsequently be trampled to death. He related the difficulties in trying to calm the horses as they suffered terror, shock and panic.  He said absolute fear was the dominant emotion.

The light draught horse and the mule were press-ganged and shipped off to a terrible world just as unfamiliar to them as it was for their conscripted human counterparts. Without them, the ability of the Army to wage war would have been nigh on impossible.

Within a few months of war breaking out, the two opposing sides were locked in a grim stalemate of trench warfare. This meant endless static lines of guns pounding each other. An inexhaustible stream of shells broke the ground apart, destroying the drainage system and transforming the countryside into a treacherous sea of mud and sewage.  Men were fighting mired waist-deep in mud. They often drowned where they stood – the war animals that were at the soldiers’ side, perished in the same manner.

Notwithstanding this deadly, unforgiving environment, the continuous pounding lines of guns had to be kept fed, as did the men in the trenches. However, the ground was treacherous and next to impossible to navigate. A team of horses or mules was the only way to get the ammunition, artillery, and much-needed supplies to the battle positions.

The Mule in Warfare

The mule is actually a cross-breed, with shared genes of horse and donkey. These genes give mules amazing stamina. In wartime, mule trains struggled through shell holes of mud and sewage to move gun carriages forward to support the front line troops. Three-quarters of the ammunition at Passchendaele was delivered by mules. Hundreds of mules drowned in the cavernous shell holes. As for human costs, 20,000 soldiers attacked Passchendaele and 4,000 survived.

Staggering statistics, but just imagine how much higher the casualties would have been if those guns were bogged down and not available to support the attack. What a debt we owe our equine war animals!

Imagine the hoof-rot problems and the cases of pneumonia suffered by the horses and mules. A soldier could find some relief from nasty weather: sock changes, cigarettes, a warm bunker, rum issue, and R&R.  His war animal remained where he was, exposed to winds and rain and too often without food and lacking proper care.

The National WWII Museum, Inc., National Archives original

Apparently anyone who served with mules was a convert for life. One veteran recalled, “ 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 in war with the 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.”

Mules have a negative image and have been given a bad rap for being obstinate and cantankerous. In reality, the mule is highly intelligent and has a well-developed instinct for self-preservation. They have the ability to analyze a situation, and if it takes a moment to decide it must rest before proceeding, or think through a problem to find the safe passage through the mud, the mule would take that time.

Mules have no flair like their brother, the horse, for jumping or galloping.  These no-nonsense animals are stoic in nature. If frightened, a mule won’t bolt in panic like a horse will. He is instead more likely to study the situation before responding.
Solid and dependable, mules served in many theatres of war – and suffered heavy losses.
In order to keep mules from braying, their vocal chords were slashed to keep them quiet. The war camel was subjected to this horrible practice of ‘silence-slashing’ as well.

While serving with the United Nations in Kashmir, I personally have benefitted from and was impressed by the war mule and their incredible pulling power. To reach a troop’s position set high in the Himalayan mountain range meant a steep climb that took almost five hours. The war mule could be counted on to get the job done. You can understand how much higher our war casualties would have been if not for the horse drawn-artillery.

Infantry Regiment making a frontal charge on the enemy who are well protected with sandbags in dugout positions. Their machine guns would be set to mow down the advancing infantry. It is the horse- drawn artillery that would neutralize the enemy’s killing power and thereby limit our casualties from the charge.

- Lloyd Swick