Having recently read two books about the second Chindit expedition in Burma (March-August 1944) I was delighted – if a little surprised – to come across a living history group, The Burma Mule, at a ‘Desert Rats’ commemorative event in Thetford Forest.
Unfortunately there were no mules present as their two 16 year old mules are now largely retired, but there was still much of interest. I was especially pleased to see mule saddles up close. Of relevance to the Salonika campaign is the one shown below, which is very similar to those used in the First World War. This could carry a variety of loads and you can see, here, a portable forge. Although date stamped ‘1940’ it is likely that similar kit – including a small anvil – was in use by earlier generations of mule transport units. Keeping the feet of mules and ponies in tip-top condition is, of course, vital for their well-being and efficiency.
Their other saddle was of a later pattern with a rigid metal frame and was, apparently, less popular than the previous one. Whether this was with the mules or muleteers wasn’t clear! The load shown is illustrative only and, in reality, would have been more balanced, i.e. a pair of howitzer wheels or two loads of ‘K ration’ boxes.
To read more about the use of mules by the British (and Indian) Army, from the Peninsular War to 1975 – including detailed chapters on both world wars – I heartily recommend The Mule in Military Service, a slim paperback by distinguished military historian and SCS member, Anthony Clayton (The Book Guild Ltd, 2017). It looks like it is out of stock, so you may have to hunt for a secondhand copy.
If you’re interested, the books on the Chindit expedition that I read were:
Military mules may be history for the British Army, but their versatility in tricky terrain means that they are still valued by some armed forces around the world. Back in March I shared a video from the US Marine Corps about Alice, a mighty military mule who was described – unfairly in my opinion – as the meanest mule in the USMC. I’m pleased to say that the good people at the 2nd Marine Logistics Group have shared a further video of their wonderful mules.
Muffin – who has been sponsored by the Society since 2015 in recognition of the vital role of mules in the campaign – is a gentle little chap who has the build of his donkey father so would have been too small for the mule lines in Salonika.
In this remembrance season it is appropriate to also remember those animals that served – and suffered – without which the BSF could not have functioned. Mules and horses are the most obvious, but there was also the humble, but vital, carrier pigeon.
Mules don’t feature on television very often, so what a joy it was to see Martina in Gary Lineker: My Grandad’s War on BBC1 on Monday 11th. A lovely Italian mule, Martina – in an all too brief appearance – explained to Gary (yes, that Gary Lineker) the important role mules played in supply and casualty evacuation on the mountainous front line of the Italian campaign during the Second World War. In the programme, Gary followed the route of his late grandfather from Salerno to Monte Cassino to understand his experiences as a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps and why British troops in Italy came to be known as ‘D-Day Dodgers’.
It’s impossible not to see parallels with the Macedonian campaign: a Mediterranean front with challenging terrain and climate, overshadowed by the main fighting in north-west Europe and considered a ‘cushy number’ by those not there; of course, the Italian campaign was a far bloodier business. The programme will be available on the BBC iPlayer for the next month or so and you can read about it here.
This is one of an impressive collection of photos in the excellent IWM online collection showing mules in Italy (search: mules Italy). Searching ‘mules Salonika’ will find photos of British military mules from a generation earlier.
This week Redwings Adoption Star Muffin celebrated his 32nd birthday. I’m ashamed to say that I am late with this news as the actual celebration was on Sunday 14th April. I hope he will accept these belated best wishes from the SCS. We hope he had a good party and enjoyed his cake. Continue reading “Birthday wishes to Muffin!”
If you can get to the National Army Museum in Chelsea before 3 March, then I heartily recommend the exhibition of First World war paintings by Sir Alfred Munnings, one of Britain’s most celebrated equine artists, who attended the Norwich Art School.
I am pleased to announce the publication of a book which describes and honours the service of the military mule. It could be said that mules have had walk-, or trot-on roles in many volumes of military history, but I believe this is the first book in which the British military mule has taken centre stage without having to share the limelight with horses and camels! Continue reading “Mule Lines : British military mules in the spotlight”