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Mules: The Unsung Heroes Of the War

 49 mule train Camp Dynes KY longA 49-mule train at Camp Dynes, Kentucky

American humorist Henry W. Shaw (1818-1885), writing under the pen name Josh Billings, wrote this about mules (read phonetically and smile):

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.

training mules at Camp Logan TXWrangling a mule at Camp Logan, Texas.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 had never encountered a mule.

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

One book stands out as the final authority on U.S. army mules, Shavetails and Bell Sharps, by Emmett M. Essin.

The Mule In Military Service, by Anthony Clayton, describes the role of the animals in British and imperial era Indian armies.

NN leaving C and O train for pen in Newport NewsMules leaving C & O train in Newport News.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.

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.2 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:3right and wrong shaped mule Galtrey page 44

Brit appy mule carrying shells165 BO 1576The spots on the rump of this British pack mule indicate that the mule's dam was an Appaloosa mare, almost certainly from the American west.

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.4 In WW1, 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.


Weight in pounds

Height (in hands, a hand being 4”)


Wheel mules


15.3 to 16.2


Lead mules


15 to 15.3


Pack mules

950 to 1,150

14.2 to 15.2


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.5 The latter, however, might well have come originally from the U.S.!US mules with supply wagon wwimusMules hitched to a U.S. supply wagon.

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.

During the first year after the US. entered the war, about 12,300 mules were shipped from the U.S. to France for use by American troops. Several arrangements for getting animals from Allied nations (and thus already in Europe) did not result in nearly enough animals to meet the needs of the U.S. troops. By the summer of 1918 there were such severe shortages of draft animals that another 16,500 mules were shipped to Europe from the U.S., some not arriving until late December – they had been in route when the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. Thus, less than 29,000 of the mules used by the U.S. forces actually were brought to Europe with our own forces, and most of those arrived in the last two months of the war. The troops were chronically short of draft animals.

Nearly all the mules used by the British came from the United States (hundreds of thousands), and Italy bought U.S. mules for use as pack animals in their mountain terrain. U.S. mules also went to Egypt to serve with British troops there.Brit unloading a mule in Alexandria Egypt 1915Unloading a mule in Alexandria, Egypt in 1915.

Stories of mulish behavior abounded.

Tales involve mules that kicked or bit overbearing officers but were gentle as kittens with their caretakers, or mules that saved their drivers and themselves by their sure-footedness on impossible terrain, or by continuing on their mission despite being wounded or under severe fire. Mules gained a reputation for intelligence, for not having any patience with incompetent handlers, and for an unerring instinct for self-preservation.

The Quartermaster’s Review provides a story that will make mule lovers smile: “a pack-mule would loaf around the army kitchen when the cook was baking bread until he observed the cook busy at some other duty, when he would approach the fire, raise one foot and paw off the lid of the Dutch oven, grab the hot loaf within and make off with it on the run.”6

French soldiers lead horses loaded with bread Verdun wwimusFrench soldiers lead horses loaded with nets full of bread near Verdun.There are several aspects of this story that are not quite believable: the mule allowed to roam free in camp; the cook preparing bread in a Dutch oven (army mess cooks baked loaves by the thousands in large ovens); and most of all the mule, willing to burn his mouth on a loaf straight from the fire!

But there is an appeal to the story – a smart mule gets the best of a hard-working mess cook! Perhaps it was true, perhaps it really happened not in an army camp but in a mining camp in the American west, and was re-told in France – but most of all, it is endearing, and soldiers in 1918 (and readers 100 years later), wanted to believe it.

In his tribute to the horse and mule in World War I, Captain Sidney Galtrey best sums up the opinion of those who knew mules during the war.

“How can you treat consistently a conglomerate mixture of stolidity, stubbornness, slyness, willingness, temper, sullenness, humour, contentment, waywardness and cunning with no knowledge of which vice or virtue is going to assert itself next.”7

Draft Mules

The chronic shortage of draft animals was a problem for both British and American armies. The American mules which served with British troops early in the war were making a name for themselves as incredibly hard-working animals that could survive on far poorer rations than horses, but, as with horses, the early months of the war proved very difficult for the mules.US team with fallen mule in snowA mule falls in harness after being injured by shrapnel near Remy, France. His eye shows fear, and perhaps he has broken a hind leg - note the upturned shoe at the bottom of the photo, the leg in a nearly impossible position. The accident must just have happened, since the rest of the team is not yet aware that there is an animal down and is trying to walk forward. Just one tragedy, documented by happenstance, on September 18, 1918.

By early fall 1914, only six months into the fighting, the beginnings of trench warfare were evident – a static line of fighting with almost no advancement, and the land becoming more and more torn apart by constant shelling. Eventually, the repeatedly-repaired roads were the only stable ground that would reliably support the weight of a horse, mule, or cart. Any step off the edge of the road risked the possibility of going into mud several feet deep, or shell holes that held water and mud deep enough to drown animals and men.Brit mules in shell hole Christmas Day 1916 France 165 BO 0740British mules mired in a shell hole, Christmas Day 1916. Many times it was simply not possible to get a secure enough hold on the animal to pull it out, and it had to be shot before it drowned. The animal lying sideways on the left is probably already dead, while it may yet be possible to extricate the one on the right.

In spite of this, going off the roads was often necessary, as the roads were narrow, there was often traffic going in both directions, and a broken-down vehicle could easily block the road completely. US AMERICAN AMMUNITION WAGON holding up column NORTHEAST OF ST. MIHIEL wwimusA U.S. ammunition wagon holds up an entire supply train on a road near St. Mihiel, France. US caissons crossing snowy field wwimusUS caissons crossing a snowy field.When some forward progress was made, guns needed to be moved to new positions, and it was horses and mules that moved them. This brought the animals into the heart of the fighting, and it was not uncommon for advances to be followed by retreats, so that the same route was traversed forward and then backward, all the while under fire.

Likewise, the supply lines often went through areas where enemy fire could pick out animals and their handlers. Most of the re-supply work was therefore done at night, without lights, making it even more difficult to stay on stable ground and find the way.

Pack Mules

US carrying shellsPack mules loaded with heavy artillery shells negotiate the mud in France.A pack mule can carry about one third of his weight, and the Army cargo pack saddle, with all attachments, weighed about 100 pounds. Thus, the average pack mule could be loaded with a saddle plus about 200 pounds of supplies. The larger pack mules would carry artillery loads, which were heavier and could be awkward. The heaviest loads would be machine-gun ammunition, one animal’s share consisting of ten 21-pound cans, for a total of 210 pounds. This load needed to be very evenly balanced to avoid overburdening the animal.  

Pack mules were employed to bring supplies from the rear of the action to the actual front trenches, a distance of several miles. The trenches themselves were elaborate warrens of ditches, with a zig-zag pattern nearest the German lines, and spurs that led back toward supply lines and medical facilities. Pack mules delivered food and ammunition to the ends of the spurs, where they were taken by men and carried to the fighting forces. Further back, the same process was repeated, bringing supplies from trains and trucks to the rear trenches and the stables, hospitals, and kitchens.

There are two main ways to handle pack mules along the road. In the first, pack troopers ride their own mules and the load-bearing animals are herded along as a group. This method is good when relatively short distances are being covered outside the active battle zone. The animals can pick their own pace and footing, leading to less fatigue.

But this method does not work if there are troops on foot in the same column, and it was rarely possible to use this method in France. Mules naturally walk about twice as fast as a foot soldier. Thus, if they are part of a column of troops, or carrying equipment that may be needed quickly, they must be led. Certainly if they are in a battle zone with active shelling possible, there must be a soldier on the end of the lead line, since stampeding panic-stricken mules are a hazard to everyone around them.

mule with diamond hitch packFully loaded pack mule. The well-balanced load is secured with the diamond hitch. Under the load, completely hidden by it, is the pack saddle.An aspect of the use of mules in army life that not many people would think of 100 years later is the need for expert muleteers (sometimes called mule skinners) who could balance a loaded pack saddle and tie the complex knots required for a pack mule’s load.

The pack saddle itself bore little resemblance to a riding saddle. Though several models had come and gone over the years, the pack saddle favored at the time of World War 1 was the Daly Aparejo Pack saddle, named for Henry W. Daly, who was chief packer for the Army.

Actually more a tightly lashed-together set of small pieces of wood, it formed the base for the load, which was balanced side to side and built up with a series of knots and cross ropes. The saddle was flexible in that it draped over the mule’s back, though it needed to be padded with a blanket underneath in order not to rub the animal raw. Gradually with use, it also began to mold itself to the actual shape of the mule it was being used on, and thus, each mule had its own saddle rather than getting assigned a random one each day.

Well-trained pack mules would, on command, line up in long rows, standing side by side with no lead ropes or other restraint, and with a row of saddles and harness sitting on the ground in front of them – each mule having lined up in front of its own saddle!8

Mules behind their pack saddles Candelaria TX 1917 1918Mules behind their pack saddles in Candelaria, Texas, 1917 or 1918.

Mules that were this well trained were known as “bell sharps,” which referred to their training to follow the sound of a lead mare wearing a bell. All mules naturally defer to horses as their superiors in the pecking order that is found in every herd of equines. Further, they defer to mares as superior to geldings. Thus, the guide for each mule train often rode a mare who wore a bell so that the mules following single file behind could be reassured that she was in fact there whether they could see her or not. If the mare was killed, apparently the mules grieved and were very disconcerted, as they had lost their leader.9

Each troop that used mules also included soldiers whose primary responsibility was to the animals. They loaded them, led them, and took care of them at the beginning and end of every day. If possible, at the end of each day, the animals would be taken out from camp and grazed on lead lines, as fresh grass was the best food for them. If grass was not available, then hay or other forage would be fed. Grain, usually oats, was also fed, and part of the load of each mule was his own food.

scraping mud off mule near Bernafay Wood 1916Scraping mud off a mule near Bernafay Wood, 1916.Each animal was supposed to be groomed morning and night, and the army had specific standards and methods for grooming – the muleteers were supposed to take their coats off so they could really put their energy into the task!10 But with the constant mud, army grooming standards were rarely met at least during the winter months.

The constant dampness from autumn through spring made skin diseases an ever-present issue, though mules were far more resistant to them than were the horses. As a defense against lice and other parasites that hid under the body hair of the mules, most animals were clipped, which meant that the winter coats that might have protected them from the elements and kept them warm, were clipped very short.

This did assist in early detection of mange or lice, and in removal of the ever-present mud, but it of course had a very undesirable effect of removing the mule’s natural abilities to keep warm. Thus, they had to be blanketed, but of course, there were often not enough blankets to go around. Additionally, when food was short, the mules chewed on each other’s wool blankets and even ate them outright. Enormous suffering came as a result of the practice of clipping. By the end of the war, official doctrine had changed and clipping was limited to certain parts of the body or was eliminated completely, as it was seen to be more detrimental to health than it was helpful in preventing skin disease.

US picket line2 France ww1musPicket lines were the most common means to secure animals for the night if no stables were available. Picket lines are ropes strung about 36” off the ground to which animals are tied at intervals. The line may also be staked directly to the ground and the animals tied to it there. In either arrangement the lines had to be kept tight and the halter shanks short to keep the mules from getting ropes twisted around their feet.

Stable sergeants were admonished to have patrols monitor the picket lines near-constantly to keep mules from eating each other’s rations, keep blankets in order, and make sure no mules had kicked each other or had gone down. Rope burns, especially on the legs, could easily become open wounds in the constant damp and dirt of the battlefield.

 Poisoned gas attacks were also launched at both the mules in supply duty and at those in picket lines. If hit by a gas cloud, the mules might well die. Certainly, any food they were carrying would be ruined.

US mule with gas mask Alsace Germany Aug. 31 1918U.S. mule being fitted with a gas mask in the battlefield in the Alsace region of Germany, Aug. 31, 1918.Several kinds of gas were used, some which injured the lungs (phosgene, chlorine) and some which burned the skin as well (mustard gas). Gas masks were developed for horses and mules, but proved impractical, since the animals could not breathe well enough with the masks on to do more than a slow walk. Of course, the masks were useless against mustard gas, the kind of gas that burned all exposed skin and tissues.

The standard practice if a gas attack was detected while the animals were in camp, was to turn all animals loose in the hopes that they could avoid the gas clouds, which dissipated quickly as they were blown about by any breeze.

With far fewer animals available than were needed, the ones that were there were worked very hard. At the worst, they worked 24, 48, or even 72 hours without being unharnessed or without breaks to eat more than a few mouthfuls. Thankfully, this was not the norm, but it was not unheard of. It was only the incredible stamina and fundamentally strong constitution of the mule that kept the animals going. Many died of exhaustion and malnourishment.

Three years after the war ended, The Quartermaster Review published a humorous piece soliciting entries for a contest to provide a medal (worth $25.00!) to an army mule as a token of distinguished service. After all, it was reasoned, medals had been awarded to a pigeon, a dog, and a horse, but mules had been left out. But it appears that there were no entries in the contest, and though the deadline was extended, there is no mention of the medal ever having been awarded. April 1, 1921 was to have been ALL MULES DAY, and it is sad to think that no one cared enough about these four-legged service members to follow up on the plan11.

Purchase and shipment of mules to ports in the U.S. and on to Europe or England by ship is covered here.

For a detailed discussion of numbers of animals, their cost, and cost of shipping, click here.

For disposal of animals after the end of the war, click here.

  1. Galtrey, Sidney, Capt., The Horse and The War. Country Life, Tavistock, 1918, p. 35.
  2. The Tennessean, Nashville, TN, Sunday Sept 12, 1915, p. 49.
  3. Ibid, Galtrey, p. 43.
  4. The Quartermaster Review, March/April 1946
  5. For details on numbers of animals, see By the Numbers 
  6. The Quartermaster Review, September-October 1921, 74, reprinted from The Christian Science Monitor, May 6, 1921, p. 3
  7. Ibid., Galtrey, p. 43
  8. Essin, Emmitt M., Shavetails and Bell Sharps, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), p. 153
  9. ibid., Essin, p. 96
  10. Notes on Horse Management In the Field, Prepared in the Veterinary Department for General Staff, War Office, 1919 (British War Office publication)
  11. The Quartermaster Review, September-October 1921, p. 74.