Logistical marvels

A line of mules carrying ammunition for field artillery. © National Archive of Scotland
WarMule Tue, 29/04/2014 - 18:43

Mules gave the US Army unlimited mobility whilst they exhibited patience, endurance and surefootedness. They were also sensitive, intelligent and quickly recognised danger and knew by instinct how to avoid it. In Shavetails & Bell Sharps, the humble army mule finally gets the attention he has long deserved and gives an understanding of the logistics of the US Army in its wars with native tribal Indians through to larger conflicts before the army's mechanisation.

In the American Army leading up to the Civil War, the men from privates all the way up to generals were closely associated with mules more than any other animal used in war. It is estimated that during the Civil War along, one million mules were bought by the US Army and became indespensable as the war went on, mainly due to the lack of horses that were lost in battle or through disease. Being hardy animals, mules suffered less from illness or disease and over time they began to replace the horses that were used in harness. Their endurance was much hardier than the horse and also required less food and water than the horse. Mules certainly proved their work during the Civil War in America but little was known on how best to handle mules as they were very different to horses so were badly (or misunderstood) by the soldiers who relied on them. Animal welfare had yet to play a part in the the history of mules in war and the value put on the lives of mules sold after the Civil War reflected this; the lowest paid for a single mule two years after the war was as a mere $2.50 in Rogersville, Tennessee.

The US Army employed civilian mule packers who had devised a system which enabled them to spot new and untrained mules that arrived to support the muletrains which were long teams of mules used to pull wagons. Each new mule had it's tail clipped leaving only a tassel ("shavetail") so that anyone approaching the mule was aware that the mule had not been fully trained and therefore should be approached with caution. By the time the tail feathers grew back, it became known as a "bell sharp" which meant that the mule would take it's place within the muletrain and the ringing of a bell worn by the lead mule.

By 1870 things were beginning to change in the US Army when two saddle companies made the first non-Mexican aparejos for use with the mules. Aparejos were a type of pack saddle which was made from grass padding that was worn by the mules. Each mule had its own aparejo and over time it assumed the shape of the mule's back and withers. It was questionable if this type of pack saddle was best for the mule but for the time being it helped to prevent sores as the mules delivered their supplies by muletrain and the men began to depend more and more on the mules to carry their rations and ammunition day after day.

However, the US Army started to decrease the number of mules during the 1890s as the Indian wars were over and there was little need to transport supplies and equipment. This was a decision later to be regretted when shortly before Congress declared war on Spain, only 2,012 mules were in active military service, only 81 of which were pack mules. A far cry from 23,500 mules that were estimated to be needed just to pull the wagons if the US went to war. It was also estimated that the army would need at least 100 muletrains for military operations in Cuba.

Whilst conditions were harsh for the pack mules during the ensuing conflicts the US Army was engaged in, changes to their pack saddles continued to be made as the types of equipment changed that the mules carried. The transportation of equipment was considered extremely critical that even officers below the command rank were ordered to attend special courses on mule packing, during which the officers started to bond with the pack mules.

This training paid off seen through the eyes of other armies. In international operations the US Army's pack mules were seen as efficient and what stood out was how the mules followed the bell mare requiring only a couple of men to control them, rather than the many employed in their own armies.

By the turn of the century mules had proved themselves to be the most important animals in the US Army and were being seen by other nations as superior due to their strength and endurance. During WW1 the US exported 180,000 mules to the British Army having previously bought 55,061 mules from the US during the Boer War.

During WW1 all the armies depended heavily on mules over the use of vehicles that failed dismally in the terrain in which they were being used. Not only did the mules provide food and supplies to the troops and carry the wounded back to the field hospitals, they also carried the fuel and ammunition for the tank units on the Front.

At the end of WW1 the US Army had sold 56,207 of its mules in Europe with thousands more sold in the US shortly after the war had ended, leaving it with 80,000 mules in service. Mules had again proved themselves invaluable at a time when the mechanisation of war threatened their existence in the army. Despite advances made during the years leading up to WW1, the mule still dominated the supply lines.

By 1928 only 2,697 mules remained in the US Army as they started to be replaced by motor transportation. Even their aparejos were disposed of and replaced by lighter and more efficient pack saddles that could be packed and adjusted more easily. This also meant that the new saddles could fit any of the mules, unlike the aparejo which fitted just one mule.

When WW2 was declared in 1939, the speed at which the German invasions swept through Poland was impressive and for many this demonstrated motorised transportation being far superior as a means of winning a war. What they failed to see was the forgotten army supplying the tanks and trucks with fuel and the men with food and supplies. And so began the purchasing frenzy by the US Army and by 1945 the army had bought 14,328 mules who saw active service during WW2. During the entire war, around 14,000 out of 30,000 American mules were shipped to war to serve mainly in Burma, China and India. By the time the Germans surrendered in Italy, the Allied troops had captured approximately 28,000 German horses and mules, one quarter of which were mules.

The US Army was now faced with the task of disposing of all the mules overseas, much of which was done by handing them over to the Italian pack companies and sending others to Greece. The British Army itself asked for mules to replace those it had supplied the US with during the conflict in North Africa instead of a cash payment. The harsh reality is that the order of the day was not to ship any American mules back home as they had enough of them in service at home.

In the years following WW2, the US Army reduced its use of mules in military action and in 1956 the last remaining mules were taken out of service. Despite a study looking into re-establishing mules into the US Army, it was abandoned because it would have been a costly exercise in which there would be few places that the mules could be used. It seemed at the time that establishing a mule unit in the US Army in the 1980s would have been laughable to many in an era of modern warfare. Others would disagree.

I must thank Andy Smerdon for mentioning Shavetails & Bell Sharps which is an eye-opening book into the history of thousands and thousands of American mules. War is cold and bloody, yet as years went on, their is a feeling of warmth as men and mules bonded. The difficult part was despite everything these four-legged terrain vehicles provided, many would not return home at the end of WW2 but disposed of in their thousands. Without mules, armies would not have won their battles as they themselves struggled through to provide the men with rations, water and equipment as well as carrying heavy ammunition for field artilleries.

Let's not forget the sacrifice mules made in winning wars to preserve our freedom.

If you would like to read Shavetails & Bell Sharps yourself, preloved copies of the book are available online through abebooks.com.

Add comment

Log in to post comments

Favourite poems

Recent comments