Sunday, January 24, 2021

Verses to a Mule

Missouri Digital Heritage, Springfield Greene County Public Library 

In her essay “A stupid mule is still smarter than a good horse, or a bad man,” Great War historian Lucy Betteridge-Dyson writes,  “Yet whilst the contribution of the horse is undoubtedly fascinating … it is his less glamorous cousin, the mule, who was the real equine hero of the Great War.” She continues, “what sets the mule apart from the horse and the donkey are his physical attributes combined with his personality. He is both more intelligent and diligent than the horse, in addition to being tougher and more resistant to illness and disease. It is these characteristics which made the mule an invaluable resource during the Great War.”*

Some soldier-poets even wrote poems honoring the army mule: 

Verses to a Mule**

I’d like to sing the virtues of a mule, brown, black, or gray;
To paint his personality in quite a pleasing way,
But Jim declares a mule’s beneath such eloquent respect,
And, saying which, his diction’s more emphatic than correct.

A mule-skinner is Jim, and you ought to see him drive:
The wheelers balk and, statue-like, they scarcely seem alive;
The leaders semi-circle  ’til they prance at Jimmy’s feet,
And Jimmy leaps politely up to tender them his seat.

A mule is nothing beautiful; no hymn or work of art.
It’s Jim’s belief he’s only ears and hoofs, without a heart,
Unkempt, a shaggy animal, who shies at every shack,
Who always waits his chance and kicks you just below the back.

Now, only beasts can sweat, they say, for gentlemen perspire,
But bless the tugging mules that pull your auto from the mire.
’Tis true, by conscience they object to backing where they stand—
That’s not a vicious habit in a military land.

Oh, he’s the brute who lugs your heavy rations to the door,
The brute who labors, hauling, from the quartermaster’s store,
The one who stumbles through the mud and always finds his feet,
With loads of hay and wood and coal and clothing, bread, and meat.

He looks at you as if his soul lay sleeping in his eyes,
He plods the roads as if the world for him held no surprise,
He pulls the combat wagons over ruts as high as trees,
He wallows where the others shrink and dirties up his knees.

So talk to him more gently, Jim, this homely beast of toil,
For he’s the only one can swim through Carolina soil;
And tuck him safe in bed at night and kiss him on the cheek—
And maybe, then, he’ll never kick you—more than once a week.
—Charles S. Divine*** 

British soldier & mule © IWM Q 16181

All combatant nations relied heavily on horses and mules, quickly learning that mules were more adaptable to the conditions of the First World War. From the mud of the Western Front to the barren landscapes of Gallipoli, mules transported supplies, carried the wounded, and hauled heavy artillery. The primary supplier of mules was the United States, exporting 180,000 mules to Britain alone during the war.†

When the U.S. entered the war, mules joined American troops in overseas service and proved indispensable; Pershing commented that one of the most significant logistics problems faced by the AEF was the shortages of animals. On several occasions, the service of mules and their handlers was nothing short of heroic: 

© IWM Q5773 John Warwick Brooke 
On 4 October 1918 [at Ergemont during the Meuse-Argonne offensive] all communication with artillery in the rear had broken down, and the commander sent for new telephone wire. All division trucks were bogged down in mud, and wagon horses faltered in their traces. So Sgt. Laurence M. Lumpkin loaded ten pack mules with the needed wire and headed for the forward position. German artillerymen spotted the animals and laid down a barrage that killed five of them. The remaining mules with Lumpkin did not panic, and they delivered the wire. After unloading them, Lumpkin galloped the five animals back to the point where the other mules had fallen, removed the loads from the dead mules, repacked his remaining five and brought back the rest of the wire. For this dangerous act he received the DSC, but the mules were given no official recognition. “Their behavior under fire, however, endeared them to the First Division.” ††

To learn more about military mules, see Betteridge-Dyson’s essay at this site, which also includes another example of mulish war poetry, “Musings of a Mule.”
*Lucy Betteridge-Dyson, “A stupid mule is still smarter than a good horse, or a bad man,” Oh What a Ladylike War. Betteridge-Dyson’s article is a superb introduction to military mules.
**“Verses to a Mule” was first published in the Wadsworth Camp (Spartanburg, SC) newspaper, Gas Attack, March 2, 1918. This version appears in Charles Divine’s City Ways and Company Streets, Moffat and Yard, 1918.
***For more on Charles Divine and his war poetry, see “When Private Mugrums Parley Voos” on this blog.
†Emmett M. Essin, Shavetails and Bell Sharps: The History of the U.S. Army Mule, U of Nebraska, 2000, p. 147.
††Essin, p. 155. 

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