Trust and friendship when it mattered

She is very stupid but I am very fond of her. © National Library of Scotland.
WarMule Sun, 08/06/2014 - 14:08

It's well known that mules are highly intelligent and the British Army, accustomed to working with horses, found it extremely challenging to train mules. It wasn't until they started to understand the mule, did their partnership start to improve. With this came a deep respect of the long-eared, sure-footed animals that were to serve alongside the British Army. In return the mules began to trust those working with them and friendships between man and mule developed.

In the harsh reality of war, both men and animals are expendable as a military resource, but having read a number of books now, I sense that the men who walked alongside their mules had deep affections for them and would go to great lengths to keep their mules safe and comfortable.

"... it must be remembered that they asked nothing of their animals that they did not themselves endure."

Source: The Military Mule in the British Army and Indian Army (The British Mule Society, 2006)

Even at the end of a day's fighting on the Frontline, I can image the soldiers silently having a moment to contemplate that their survival was, in part, due to the equine army in which the mules served.

I well remember, in one of the gun teams, a very good looking little grey mule. The only trouble with this little mule was her size, and to make matters worse she had been given the cradle (the heaviest load in the detachment - total load 391lbs) to carry. She carried it very well, but we thought it a little unkind and decided to change her load to the pivot (the lightest at 357lbs).

On the first day out with her new load all went well until we were ordered into action; nothing her driver could do would make her take up any position other than the cradle mule. All subsequent efforts to make her adopt the pivot position were unavailing, and in the end we were reluctantly compelled to give her back her old, heavier load."

Source: Major J. C. Ratcliffe ("The Gunner", 1964)
The Military Mule in the British Army and Indian Army (The British Mule Society, 2006)

The photograph above taken on the Western Front during WW1 came from the National Library of Scotland digital gallery of First World War 'Official Photographs' and has written on the back "She is very stupid but I am very fond of her" and is of a soldier and his mule standing in the mud with his mule resting her head on his shoulder.

Despite the sentimentality of the caption, it is undoubtedly true that many of the transport and cavalry men did become fond of the animals they worked with. Without some degree of trust it would have been impossible to control the animals in these extreme conditions.

Source: National Library of Scotland

Out of respect to those who fought in the War, I noticed the Great War Forum website shows a message when someone who served in the War died. It left me sitting quietly today (8th June 2014) because they were remembering Private Alfred Charles Gardener from the 4th Veterinary Hospital, Army Veterinary Corps who died on 8th June 1917. It's without a doubt that he would have helped injured mules and horses and for that I am deeply thankful for his service to the equine army.

Footnote: I have tried to obtain permission to use the above quotations in the book, but so far have found it difficult to get replies back. Should this cause a problem by the copyright holders, please contact me.


Jenny L. Bates's picture

Sometimes I sit and wonder 'What, then, is man that thou art mindful of him?' and then I realize at least partly that man is the observer and the recorder in nature. We ask so very much of nature and those animals we have become friends with. Whether there is meaning to this friendship or not, our point of it all as humans is to watch, make a record, and try to find the meaning. This is our great achievement on earth. We care, and in that caring, perhaps, lies our weakness and our great strength. I know of no greater observations recorded than of those we write down of the animals we share our struggles with. No other definition of All That Matters rings more true. Because when life is not beautiful is when it is most interesting. All secrets revealed, true nature revealed. And it warms my heart that at these least attractive moments we can remember the trust and courage and true hearts of our animal friends. Animals make us better humans.

" must be remembered that they asked nothing of their animals that they themselves did not endure."

Jenny L. Bates's picture

Here is one of the best passages ever written about how important it truly is to remember a friend:

"For I do not want any one to read my book carelessly. I have suffered too much grief in setting down these memories. Six years have already passed since my friend went away from me, with his sheep. If I try to describe him here, it is to make sure I shall not forget him. To forget a friend is sad. Not every one has had a friend. And if I forget him, I may become like the grown-ups who are no longer interested in anything but figures..." - The LIttle Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupery

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