The ultimate sacrifice

Italians unloading a mule from a ship at Salonika. © IWM (Q 32504)
WarMule Tue, 15/04/2014 - 21:05

This week I've been reading through (and re-reading) a couple of transcripts that Crispin passed to me that are of interviews the Deep Wreck Mysteries team gathered as part of their research into the sinking of the SS Armenian for the filming of Search of the Bone Wreck currently being aired again on UK television. Of the 29 men who lost their lives, 12 were muleteers who refused to abandon the animals for which they had developed sincere affection and respect, and preferred to go down with the ship. 1,422 mules lost their lives that day.

The interviews were with Peter Starling of the Army Medical Services Museum in Aldershot and Eric Lumb, a Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusileers.

Peter's interview gives a fascinating insight into the use of pack animals in the First World War, the conditions, logistics and the work of the Army Veterinary Corps which was later given the title Royal Army Veterinary Corps after the First World War for the services they had provided during the conflict.

It is now that I find myself in a dilemma because the last fighting Tommy, Henry John "Harry" Patch, died in 2009 and here I am wondering whether I should give my view on Eric's interview, when what I really want to do is say it as it was, as a tribute to Eric and his comrades.

I'm pretty sure that Crispin would give his consent to me publishing as these transcripts were resource materials for the filming of Deep Wreck Mysteries: Search of the Bone Wreck and is part of the publicity and promotion of the film.

Don’t forget the First World War, there’s this thing that it’s gonna be over by Christmas so at that time we thought we had enough pack animals as well as horses, as mounts for our cavalry.

We’d used the best of the bunch very early on and we then had to look farther afield.

The loss of animals as well as humans was quite great early on in the battles and we were losing lots from enemy shelling and we found that, though we were doing our best to treat these animals, like we treated the humans for their injuries and their diseases, we couldn’t save them all and some of them still had to be destroyed.

A human can hunker down quickly when there’s shell fire but of course a horse or a mule can’t. The enemy was shelling our rear areas, if you hit the rear areas that’s where you’ve got your concentration of transport, your horses and mules, your men, and they’re the places they were going for so of course they were very vulnerable because they were out in the open.

High explosive shelling, shrapnel of course, terrible weapon, and German aircraft, certainly German aircraft although bombing was in its infancy so these horses and mules were getting badly injured.

The pack animals were obvious targets because they’re waiting there ready to be loaded up to bring the ammunition forward, bring the food, the water forward, bring the stores forward, and they were very vulnerable.

The level and care was very good in the First World War compared with the South African War because we realised these were valuable assets. We needed to get them back in the front line just like our soldiers, make them well again, repair any injuries that they’ve got and get them back into use again, and the same with their food, we needed to make sure that their forage was good because you want your animals to be strong, if they’re not strong they can’t work.

Britain looked to North America and Canada for new supplies of animals, and in some cases to South America, Uruguay, and we sent the remount commissions over there and we even sent veterinary officers over there. In the main the veterinary officers were retired, they weren’t fit for military service but we sent them over there to start purchasing horses and mules on a vast scale, a phenomenal scale.

Some of the ships were used for transporting 800, a thousand horses or mules at a time, the stockyards in some cases held 20 thousand animals waiting to be shipped, it was a gynormous task.

They were usually all kept below decks, very rarely were they ever put above deck, mostly they were kept in the holds in big open pens not individual pens, and that’s what they felt was the best way to move them across the Atlantic.

When a ship was coming under fire from an enemy submarine or an enemy ship, it must have been awful for these animals. A human's reaction is if they're frightened is survival but of course a horse or a mule, it’s tied up down there below the holds, if there’s water coming in, if the ship is on fire or the ship is listing, it must have been terrible for these animals, the panic must have been incredible.

Once the ships have docked and they’ve unloaded all these animals, obviously just just like a human being that’s been stuck on a ship for 3 or 4 weeks, they need to get acclimatised to being on dry land, to basically get rid of its sea legs as it were, and of course they’ve all gott to be examined again because there was disease on some of these ships and that disease may have spread so we’ve gotta start looking at these animals, make sure they’re now fit and healthy to be taken into the British military system and then of course moved to France, or to the other theatres of war.

A huge logistical exercise, they’ve gotta be held somewhere, they’ve all gotta be inspected by the Army Veterinary Corps. It's a massive undertaking, before we even get them to the Front Line, and we’ve gotta get them used to wearing pack equipment, if they’re gonna be used as draft horses for pulling the wagons, pulling the guns and the limbers.

Of course in April 1915 we saw the use of gas north-east of Ypres and then eventually as both sides developed gas warfare and we got into things like mustard gas of course the ground is contaminated, the British soldier with his boots and his putties has hopefully got some protection but of course the poor horses and mules haven't so they started to suffer.

The classic image of the First World War is the mud of France and Flanders, and the poor old Tommy trying to wade through it, but it’s not of course the poor Tommy, it’s the horses and mules as well. There are some classic images you see in books and in collections of these poor animals bogged down, all these poor animals stood there caked in a coat of mud.

Our feelings about the animals were different to the Anglo Boar War, to the South African War, so we needed to keep these animals fit, healthy, heal their wounds and bring them back into the system so we did look after them, we did care for them, really like our humans, they were a great resource and we needed to get the best out of them that we could, so it was important that we did feed them, treat them if they were injured, treat them if they were sick, and try and look after them.

I think the British public doesn’t really realise how much we relied on animals in the the Great War and how many we lost whether it’s coming across from the Atlantic on the ships, whether it’s enemy action, or whether it’s disease.

During the First World War I think animals did play this phenomenal great role, because as the war progressed we got more and more mechanised transport but never again would we see such a large use of pack animals. In the Second World War we did have them in places like Burma, and in Italy in the campaigns in the mountains but never again would we rely so much on horses and mules as we did in the First World War.

Our mule transports played an incredible role, we wouldn’t have been able to sustain our soldiers on the Front Line if we didn’t have them during this Great War, and they paid the ultimate price just like the human.

Peter Starling
Army Medical Services Museum, Altershot


I love reading about the care that British cavalry soldiers took of their horses and mules (although Faith's presentation taught me a lot about the difficult relationship the men had with their mules). My great grandfather and his brother were both cavalry officers and as a child I used to hear so many stories about the relationship between soldiers and their animals. Between them they wrote a number of books about training horses for war (their names are Geoffrey Brooke and Walter Brooke if you are interested) although I don’t recall them working with mules I’m sure they will have done. They also both completed in the British show jumping team so knew a great deal about the importance of taking care of their animals. Geoffrey’s wife Dorothy went on to found the Old War Horse Hospital in Cairo (later renamed the Brooke Hospital for Animals), after she saw the shocking conditions that the formerly proud British horses were in after being left behind after the war. I am not very knowledgeable about my own family history I'm ashamed to say but I'm finding out on the hoof!

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