A friend of the mule once upon a time

Exhausted mule being fed by a soldier. Copyright expired - public domain.
WarMule Thu, 15/05/2014 - 19:00

Eric Lumb was in the Lancashire Fusiliers in WW2 and was involved in the fighting in Italy in 1943-1944. It was tough in the mountains near the famous battle of Cassino and further on up through the mountains of Italy. Eric was sent to Tripoli in the Lebanon to go on a special course to learn how to handle mules. He spent a month there travelling by train from Egypt through Palestine to get there. When on the course he met Cypriot muleteers and he learned to respect the mule as an animal. He learned how to load and unload mules. He learned that the load they could best carry was a maximum of 50lbs divided equally between two 25lb panniers. He went on the course so that he could supervise the mules supply operation in the Italian mountains. When back in Italy later he remembers how the mules came up the mountains from base camp every night with supplies. They were led up by Indians or Cypriots and sometimes the Germans would shell them with their accurate 88mm guns and sometimes the mules were killed.

The following transcript is of an interview with Eric in 2008 as background research into the making of the “Deep Wreck Mysteries” programme about the sinking of the SS Armenian off the Cornish coast with a loss of 1,400 mules on 1915.

Who are you, rank held and regiment when you were involved.

I was commissioned into the Lancashire Fusiliers as a lieutenant, platoon commander and I was sent out to fight with the 2nd battalion in Italy with a platoon of men and we were fighting in Cassino and for the first time I’d seen mules actually being used. I’d heard about this from the First World War but in the mountainous terrain where we were fighting there was no possibility of any jeep or any vehicle bringing supplies to us and so I saw how useful the mules were. They were our lifeline. They brought us our food once a day, a hot meal, they brought us ammunition and they kept us going. They were led by Indian army muleteers who would have a train of four or five, perhaps two. Two soldiers would be with them and they’d quickly come. It was a trek of probably two to three hours to get up to our positions up in the mountains in Cassino and two or three hours back so it was a tough going for them and generally done at night-time so the Germans who were not more than fifty yards away from our position wouldn't be able to see them. But of course the Germans knew the pass we were using and every so often would just lob a shell or mortar across and hope to catch one or two of our supply mules and Indians, which happened. Fortunately not very often but it did happen. Now, after the fighting finished at Cassino the battalion was withdrawn to the Middle East to regroup, get reinforcements and have a rest for three months actually and whilst we were there the colonel decided that it would be a good idea to have an officer learn more about mules in case we had problems with the soldiers who were leading them in the mountains. So I was despatched to Northern Lebanon to a village called Zgharta which is inland from Tripoli, up in the mountains where there was a group of Cypriot muleteers with 20 or 30 mules and for a month I stayed with them and learnt how to load and lead them, feed them and generally look after them so that after this, when we got back to Italy the colonel knew that he had somebody who had some idea about what to do should there be any problem with the muleteers who were bringing our food. Occasionally I did have to go and help out, dragging them up the mountain which was a rest from fighting, thank goodness and that virtually is how it went on. They were our lifeline. We couldn’t have survived, couldn’t have fought there without them. I mean helicopters would have been no use if we’d had them because we were so near the German positions that no helicopter could get close enough safely whereas mules under cover of darkness could and that’s where they were. They’re lovely animals, wonderful to see them climbing those mountains. Very long trips every day, up and down and there we are, that was my experience of them. The Germans knew how to defend because of these high mountains, they got on the top of them and we’d have to climb up and fight them one mountain top to another and all the time the mules would be there with us. We depended on them as much as we depended upon anything, so we were very grateful to have them there. They're a very beautiful animal. I grew to like them. Many people say they’re a vicious animal, they’re not if they’re looked after, if you treat them properly, don’t overload them, don’t try and force them, they’ll do what you want them to do. You've got to be careful, never walk round the back of them, show them what you’ve got to put on the load, show them here’s a load twenty-five pounds weight, put it on, let the mule have a look at it, put it on the side in a pannier, another load on this side and that would be it. The mule would take be watching you all the time. His ears would be twitching away there and that would be it and then you’re off. They’ve got such dainty feet. They can go up those mountain pass better than any other animal. Well perhaps a goat could do it but a mule was certainly ideally equipped for the mountain warfare where we were using them.

How is their reputation based in fact.

Well a mule can be stubborn but it’s only because of the driver who doesn’t know how to handle it. When I was training with these Cypriots I could see one or two of them in there who were rough with them and the mules got to know them and didn’t like it and would react in a stubborn manner. If you get round the backside of it, you be very careful. Never approach it from the rear side because it suspects something’s going on behind. So go to its front, look at it, talk to it, pat it, show it what you’re going to ask it to do then it’ll do it generally. Nine times out of ten it’ll do it. But go up to it in a vicious, aggressive manner and it will be stubborn. It will react in a stubborn sort of manner. People are like that, as much as mules are, so I wouldn’t call a mule a stubborn animal. It’s the way it’s handled that makes it what it is and I think that, treat it rightly, it’ll respond to you and that’s what I used to try to do. Lead it carefully, don’t pull at it too hard. It’ll just dig its heels in and stop. It goes at its own pace. Don’t push it with the weight, don’t push it with too much effort trying to get it to move faster, it won’t. It’ll come along, it’ll go where I say a mountain goat would go. Cars never could, a jeep or a tank never could, it’s why we depended upon them for being our lifeline and I’ve got a lot to thank them for. I mean I was with them for probably eight months altogether, through the centre of Italy and when we got to the plains of the Po no longer were they needed there because then modern equipment could be used to bring our supplies, so the mules were just forgotten, disposed of and there they are.

To what extent were mules targeted by the enemy?

They were certainly targeted by the Germans because they knew that we were being supplied by the mules, They knew roughly the tracks we were using to get up to our position up in the mountains and so they had fixed lines set on these tracks and every so often they would just lob over a mortar shell hoping that it would catch them out. They were mostly used at night-time of course when they couldn’t be seen and it was just a case of as it got dusk, the Germans would know that our mule train was going to come up the mountain and, as I say, it’s a two or three hour climb and so they would just occasionally lob over a shell and hope they would hit one of the mules or the drivers over there, and they did and that would be a sad story, end of mule, sometimes end of the Indian muleteer who was bringing them up and occasionally I’d be called upon to see if muleteers had been killed, to help out to pull these mules along to get to where we were. That was my role, apart from doing the fighting, it was a bit of a break actually.

How did the mules react to fire?

They were frightened but they’d still come, particularly if there was somebody there helping, going along with them. They looked upon men as their support and you can’t blame them for that. I mean anybody who has a shell dropped within ten yards of is going to feel a bit cross. And they were hit so all I can say is, we had to look after them. I was there, sent down occasionally to find where the muleteers were with the mules and help them to come along to get them up the hillside.

Would they stampede?

I never saw any stampede, never. The Indian muleteers knew very well how to handle them and if there was shelling, well they’d be caressing them and easing them along and that was how they got to us. So no I don’t think we were ever let down with them. We always had some food and some ammunition, thanks to them, so I think I’m grateful for them actually as were most of our friends out there.

A ship was full of mules for First World War transport. How would mules react to being on a ship and under fire?

I really don’t know. I could see they’d be frightened. I mean the swell, the roll of a ship, I think would upset them because they wouldn’t know what was happening. I mean it would be transferring their weight from one side to the other, they would get aggressive. I mentioned a friend in Burma, in the Chindits, his unit was having mules flown up by Dakota aircraft and the Dakota took off and within a few minutes there was chaos inside the place, presumably because of the noise and the rolling of the plane, that the mules actually kicked out the side of the plane and the plane had to turn round and go back and that was it. They weren’t chained down properly. Afterwards he said they knew how to put them into a plane, a Dakota, and they’d bring them up to where they were behind the Japanese lines. So, as I say, it was a novel experience and unique experience for the mules.

How strong was the relationship between the muleteer and mule?

It was very close indeed because the Indians who were the muleteers there lived more or less alongside the mules when they were back in the valley. When they were being fed and watered the Indians would stay with them. They loved their animals and they might have had perhaps two or three of their own and they respected those two or three animals and two or three would respect the Indian and that was it. knowing your animal, it goes a long way towards, you know, knowing what it’s able to do and what it’s willing to do and if you don’t know your animal, well you get nowhere. But if it becomes very difficult to handle, an animal can be obstinate and stubborn, it can be but, but I saw they very seldom were.

The muleteers on the ship were generally black Americans and they chose to go down with the mules rather than get off the ship.

I can believe it. I mean it’s a very lovable animal. It hasn’t got a very good name, it’s probably mainly because people don’t know much about it but the Indians certainly built up a relationship with the animals and I can see how these people who were bringing the mules from America would want to do that. And it’s a creature after all, it’s got a soul and, you know, it’s lovable. A lot of people don’t think so, I mean beautiful animals that we see around us they are, they are animals worth keeping and worth getting to know and to get used to and once you do, you’re a friend. Sounds funny doesn’t it? I’m a friend of the three mules, but they built a relationship between them, one with the other. That’s what I saw.

What else in terms of keeping a mule in good health? How would weather affect that?

The mule has got a very tough skin. It’s very water resistant, it’s heat resistant and so it can acclimatise itself very quickly, more than any other animal probably. But put it in a strange environment, as these mules on this ship which went down or in the aeroplane that I’ve mentioned and they will react differently because it’s a new experience, a new environment for them and you can understand their reaction. I think a human being would be the same. The first time you go in an aeroplane you feel a little bit apprehensive and a mule’s just the same, so you can’t blame the mules for kicking around on a ship, which they would do with the rolling of the ship up and down. They’d never experienced it before. Put them on a mountain path, put the in the desert, they’re fine. We can do this better than anybody, they’ll say but put me on a ship, I’ve never been on a ship before, don’t like it, where am I, what am I doing here. Put in the aeroplane, just the same. Try them on a motor bike, I don’t think anyone’s tried that. No they it's just not their environment, so you can understand the strange reaction. They would probably have an awful problem coming across in that ship which sank, looking after them, all the time because they would get restless and when one get restless, it spreads to another and thirteen hundred, I don’t know how they were packed on this ship but presumably in lines. If one got restless, it would pass along the row of the animals. I’m sure that would happen. I mean I could see that in the the Cypriot camp where I was that if there was too much activity which they didn’t understand, they would show their disapproval of it. So put them on a ship, I understand their reaction or an aeroplane.

Why mules as opposed to horses?

Well they’re more adaptable. They’ve got little feet. They can climb up a mountain track far better than a horse ever could. They can go for longer periods without water. They don’t need all that much food. They’re easy-going about their food but they do like pure water. But they can manage for a few hours without it so that’s why they’re better than horses. In any case a horse is another lovely animal but it’s not adaptable as the mule. It has its own purpose in life, does different things. I mean you wouldn’t take a mule, well they do take mules racing, but it's not common.

How did seeing the mules make you feel after all these years?

It’s wonderful to see them. Not seen any for years. Oh it’s a gorgeous animal. I was delighted to see them in there, particularly the one next to where you’re filming because he was taking an interest really, you could tell that from the way his ears were going up and down, up and down. He was looking to see all the time what was going on. So it was lovely to see them. They’re a beautiful animal. Say, I mean I could be a friend of a mule. I was a friend of the mule once upon a time, it’s a long time ago now. So yeah. You’re talking about 64 four years ago and it’s hard to remember all these things.

They laid down their lives, what did you have to say to that?

I would agree with it entirely, particularly if the muleteer is a friendly sort of person, understanding of the animals and looks after it properly. The mule will respond to him and I can see a very close relationship developing between them. I’m sure that’s what must have happened in the Armenian.


I am grateful to Crispin Sadler, Mallinson Sadler Productions, for allowing me to reproduce this transcript of Eric Lumb's interview in its entirety as background information for their documentary series Deep Wreck Mysteries: Search for the Bone Wreck, depicting the sinking of the SS Armenian.

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