Gilbert and Sullivan’s template for the ‘very model of a modern major-general’ in the Pirates of Penzance was the British Field Marshall Sir Garnet Wolseley. He published The Soldier’s Pocket-Book of Field Service in 1874, which formed the basis of field service regulations in armies around the world. In this book lies a rather dry-looking table of comparisons that merits closer attention.

In it Wolseley, drawing on extensive military experience in Burma, The Crimea and India, compared the attributes as pack animals of various beasts of burden including the horse, the mule and the ox. It is not known if his American contemporary General George Crook ever read the book but this table would certainly have attracted Crook’s interest. A veteran of the American Indian wars and later The Civil War, he developed a respect, not merely for his opponents, but for the animals that helped to facilitate those conflicts.

The surefootedness of mules is well known. These mules are being used for descents into the Grand Canyon
The surefootedness of mules is well known. These mules are being used for descents into the Grand Canyon

Crook expressed his preference by riding around, not on the finest cavalry horse the army could provide, but on his favourite mule, which he called ‘Apache.’ His fellow officers and men might have thought him a touch eccentric, but would have respected his decision. Hannibal, who crossed the Alps with mules as well as elephants in 218 B.C, would have understood. So too would the legionaries of Ancient Rome as they battled to control the disparate elements of the Roman Empire. With good reason.

When the inhabitants of ancient Paphlagonia & Nicaea, in what is now north and northwest Turkey, crossed a male donkey (jack) with a female horse (mare), around 4000 B.C, they created the most successful experiment in cross-breeding in the history of mankind; one that has sustained armies in the field ever since.

During the Texan-Indian Wars American troops frequently pursued their quarry over large distances, often a long way from their base. They had to be self-sufficient, carrying food, weapons and other equipment with them. They were also dealing with an enemy that was elusive, travelled light and attacked at speed. The army needed to respond in kind. As Wolseley later noted in his manual, a horse could match a mule and carry a pack weight of 250 to 400 pounds. But Crook and his fellow commanders wanted their fighting forces to be able to react quickly. Far better for soldiers to travel light by loading the bulk of supplies onto the shoulders of mules. After all, they reasoned, these were animals capable of pulling pack supplies and wagons with a combined weight of 500 pounds.

The army also knew that a team could keep going with such weights for 7 hours a day, at a speed of 4 miles an hour, for 16 miles at a stretch if required. Their feats of endurance became legendary. In 1882 a company of scouts with one pack mule loaded with 200 pounds left their base in San Carlos, Arizona. Over a period of 3 days they covered nearly 300 miles in punishingly hot conditions, over terrain that was every bit as unfriendly as their enemy.

The mule did so uncomplainingly, showing more patience than might have been expected in a horse. And displaying less obstinacy in the face of the considerable demands placed on it than another beast of burden, the donkey. The animal’s tough skin was better able to withstand the heat than a horse’s, and it needed a third of the food its equine cousin required every day. That food could also be of poor quality – a mule could exist on coarse scrub if necessary. And it was much less susceptible to diseases such as colic, a digestive disorder often fatal in horses, and founder, an inflammation of the hoof through overeating that could cripple a horse.

As any wagon driver knew, the hooves of a mule were much tougher than those of a horse, crucial when travelling at speed on ground that was unrelentingly hard and uneven. The Native American Indian never made it easy for those in pursuit. Frequently they drew the army into inaccessible, mountainous areas where the closest to a road was a narrow trail, and slopes were often precipitous and treacherous. It was in these conditions that the mule excelled as no other beast of burden could. The army knew that the mule was the only means of carrying supplies in these difficult conditions. They had a sure-footedness, coupled with an innate intelligence and instinct for survival, that their human masters relied on.

General Crook also understood, as did Kit Carson and other ‘mountain men’ who explored the upper reaches of The Rockies, that to get the best out of your mule, you must first understand it. He only selected the finest stock and stipulated that all his animals must have the best equipment. Each pack saddle was tailored to the animal to which it was assigned.

The US Marines
The US Marines’ Mountain Warfare Training Center still teaches soldiers about caring for and using mules

It is no accident that in America’s army of the Twenty First Century, there is a Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. Situated in the Sierra Nevada, 21 miles north of Bridgeport, California, its core purpose is to educate soldiers about the mule and how to get the best out of the animals in their charge. It is fitting, perhaps, that the mule is also the army’s symbol.

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