Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, November 21, 2022

Recommended: America's Mules Go to War

Prewar: An American Army Pack Mule, 1912

Mention the word “mule” and you will get a response from nearly everyone who hears you! Even if they have never been near a mule, people have beliefs, associations, and definite ideas about this hybrid creature. Prior to World War I, most English citizens [for instance] had never encountered a mule.  It's  very unlikely that read this 19th-century description of the beast by an American humorist.

The mule is haf hoss and haf Jackass, and then kums tu a full stop, natur diskovering her mistake. Tha weigh more, akordin tu their heft, than enny other kreetur, except a crowbar. Tha kant hear enny quicker, nor further than the hoss, yet their ears are big enuff for snow shoes. You kan trust them with enny one whose life aint worth enny more than the mules. . . 

Tha haint got enny friends, and will live on huckle berry brush, with an ockasional chanse at Kanada thistels…. If tha ever die tha must kum rite tu life agin, for i never herd noboddy sa “ded mule.” Tha are like sum men, verry korrupt at harte; ive known them tu be good mules for 6 months, just tu git a good chanse to kick sumbody…. Tha kould kick, and bite, tremenjis. I would not sa what I am forced tu sa again the mule, if his birth want an outrage, and man want tu blame for it. . .

Tha are the strongest creeturs on earth, and heaviest ackording tu their sise; I herd tell ov one who fell oph from the tow path, on the Eri kanawl, and sunk as soon as he touched bottom, but he kept rite on towing the boat tu the nex stashun, breathing thru his ears, which stuck out ov the water about 2 feet 6 inches; i did’nt see this did, but an auctioneer told me ov it, and i never knew an auctioneer tu lie unless it was absolutely convenient.

Josh Billings

Of course, most of the British mules were in fact American mules. The British army had no mules at the outbreak of the war, though they had been used a decade before in the Boer War. The 1922 British War Office report on statistics of the Great War states that 275,097 mules were purchased from North America.

By the end of the war, a prominent British general had this to say:

Great as has been the success of the American gun horse, still greater, though perhaps less appreciated, have been the war qualities of the American mule. . . probably the most serviceable and satisfactory animal used in the war.

Brigadier-General T.R.F. Bate, British Remount Commission

Mule-Pulled Army Wagon

Since nearly all of the British Remount purchase centers were in the United States, it is safe to assume that the vast majority of these were from the U.S. Mules were purchased via dealers in Missouri and Kansas, and later in the south in Tennessee, Texas, Alabama, and Georgia.

But the south had its own demand for mules, in that most cotton fields were worked by mule power. The price of mules fluctuated greatly during the war, mainly following the price of cotton. Early in the war, British agents paid $175 per animal, and this rose as high as $230 by 1917.

In Nashville, Tennessee, the agent for the British set up an inspection for prospective purchases in September 1915. The Tennessean reported with enthusiasm that this was a great opportunity for everyone in the surrounding area to sell mules, noting that the timing was perfect for farmers to “dispose of them for a good price and not have to feed and winter them in idleness.”

Pack mules were to “have short backs, stand well, and be good boned” with weight proportional to height and conformation, weighing between 800 and 900 pounds and standing 14 to 14.3 hands barefooted.  Draft mules were to be taller, 15.1 in their bare feet, and should weigh 1000 pounds. It was specifically noted that light gray or white mules were the only ones that would not be considered for purchase. Capt. Sidney Galtrey provided an illustration of what was wanted: 

The prejudice against light colored animals had to do with visibility to the enemy. Later, in World War II in Burma, the U.S. Army was reduced to buying any animals that were available, though sending light colored animals to within a few hundred yards of the front was regarded as suicidal for both men and animals. Yankee ingenuity was brought into play and a mixture of water and the common disinfectant potassium permanganate was developed that, when sprayed on a light gray mule, produced a brownish tint that would last for a month or two.  In WWI, the purchasers simply avoided buying the gray or white animals, though later some were reluctantly accepted from the French.

After the U.S. entered the war it had specific standards of height and weight for its mules, and those were different from the British requirements. Wheel mules, that is, those that were harnessed closest to the equipment they were pulling, were the largest. In all animal harnessing arrangements, wheelers pull the most weight; animals harnessed in front pull progressively less. Thus, lead mules were a bit smaller. Pack mules were smaller still, and this was favored because it was easier to lift and lash the heavy loads onto their backs if the animals were not too tall.

Part of a 49-Mule Train, Preparing for Deployment

There were 52,137 draft mules and 9,240 pack mules used by the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe, but not all of them came from the U.S. Nine thousand were from France, 16,600 came from Spain, and 6,800 came from England.  The latter, however, might well have come originally from the U.S.!

This peculiar state of affairs came about because, after the U.S. entered the war and with limited space available aboard ships sailing from the U.S. to Europe, there was tremendous pressure on American military leaders to get soldiers to the front—with the result that transport of much-needed draft animals was deferred for months. Since the U.S. nominally entered the war in April 1917, but did not actually have many trained troops to send for months thereafter, it was well into 1918 before significant numbers of American troops were present in Europe.

Continue reading the full article HERE.

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