The Mule In The Chindit Columns
We were told at the outset of our training that we must get used to the idea of moving around without wheeled transport. What we could not carry ourselves would be carried by animals. The animals provided to help us were mules, ponies and bullocks, but mostly mules. I think we had about 60 mules, 7 or 8 ponies and 2 or 3 bullocks for our Column. We had mules of various sizes - little chaps not much bigger than an Old English sheepdog up to enormous animals almost the size of a shire horse.
The first contingent arrived one morning and the troops were given instructions in loading them. At this stage the animals were very fresh and frisky, and did not take kindly to such attention. A certain amount of injury and a whole lot of frustration was suffered during our introduction to the mule, but as time went on our relationship with them changed into what was virtually a mutual admiration society. We came to realise what a marvelous animal the mule is, with tremendous powers of endurance and the will to go on until he drops. Sometimes a mule would go too near the edge of a steep slope, miss his footing and roll down the steep side, load clattering, until brought to a halt by a tree. A sweating soldier would clamber down, remove the loads and persuade the animal to stand up. With the loads replaced, the mule would struggle back up the hill and resume its place in the order of march as if nothing had happened.
I understand that mules cannot reproduce themselves, but are the issue of mating a male donkey and a female horse. This may well be so, but we found that they certainly had some of the feelings of male and female, and we had a number of couples who had paired off together. We could not separate them, and woe betide anyone who tried to!
We were told all mules could swim, and this too perhaps is true, but we found many mules would not swim when we wanted them to. On early river crossing exercises we had tremendous difficulties getting some of them into the water. The mule is so strong and determined that the combined efforts of ten men were required to pull and push him in; then, after swimming a few yards, he would sometimes spot a piece of bank jutting out into the river, and in no time at all he would be back on the near side again! Another endearing trick of the mule was to wait until we had exhausted ourselves and collapsed on the river bank, when he would quietly walk in and cross to the other side.
The men who were allotted to the job of caring for the mules, the muleteers, became very fond of their charges, and the mules in turn seemed to have a special regard for the particular two-legged creature who looked after them. Later, when we were in Burma, and some of the mules died or were killed, their muleteers were heartbroken.
(Reserved copyright C S Phillips)