At the start of the Second World War, British animal transport companies had been phased out, but at the last minute it was decided that mules would be useful in France to carry ammunition and supplies to forward positions where roads were impassable for vehicles because of the heavy shelling that had taken place. Mules would also be able to approach quietly - it was decided that they should be de-voiced to prevent them from braying - a procedure whereby a veterinary surgeon would remove the animal's voice box
By October 1939, the decision was reached that each division in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France should have an Animal Transport Company consisting of 400 mules. Four of these companies came from India and two from Cyprus. The Indian contingent, including a young groom named Akbar Khan, all came from Rawalpindi, part of modern-day Pakistan.
2700 mules were shipped from Bombay to Marseilles without a single loss and operated successfully in France throughout the severest winter in 125 years. Their major problem, apparently, was the ice on the roads. The mules weren't properly shod for such conditions and no field forges were provided.
Until May 10th 1940, the Second World War was in a phase of little action between opposing forces, which became known as the Phoney War. Some of the Mule Companies supported the BEF, whose task was to defend a 50 mile section of the French-Belgian border alongside the French army.
At the time, there were only some local minor skirmishes. It is likely that in one of these, on May 2nd, 1940, at Wormhoudt, 25 kilometres south of Dunkirk, Akbar Khan was killed. Only a short time later, the British units and their mule companies were completely overrun by advancing German forces.
Akbar Khan is buried in Wormhoudt Communal Cemetery.
Beginning on May 10th, 1940, German armoured units pushed through the Ardennes, breaking the French line and cutting off and surrounding the Allied Units that had advanced into Belgium.
The Indian transport companies, along with the rest of the Allied forces, were ordered towards the coast. Boulogne and Calais, despite heroic resistance, were captured by German forces. The only way to save the BEF and their support, including the Mule Companies was to evacuate them from Dunkirk.
Many men of the 22nd Mule Company were captured just short of Dunkirk and became Prisoners of War. Some of them died in captivity.
This link is to a British Pathe news film of the Mule Companies in France.
The Mule Companies after Dunkirk
Once safe in Britain, there was the question of what to do with the men from the mule companies. At first they were stationed in Cornwall, then moved on to various places in Wales. A number of the men died in flu epidemics and are buried in Brecon Cemetery.
The surviving muleteers re-trained, using French Army horses, but in 1941 a thousand mules were imported from America. These animals were used to practise the skills needed for mountain warfare.
Here is an account of their time in Porthmadog courtesy of Giovanna Bloor from Llanfrothen.
"On April 2 1942 they arrived by train in Porthmadog (with all their mules and horses in cattle trucks which were not very suitable for their animals) and set up camp...
They had white officers but there was an Indian doctor and an Indian vet. The mules and horses were taken out each day for exercise, three abreast, and used to take over an hour to pass, with the vet at the head of the troop on a white horse. His name was Malik Mohammed Khan. I think altogether there must have been about 1,000 men and 1,000 animals between Croesor and Nantmor.
The Indians were only here for just over three months in the spring/summer of 1942 but they made a big impression, partly because local people at that time had never before seen faces of a different colour. People remember the Indians as being very polite and well behaved. The area seemed very quiet when they left.
There is even a spot on the Roman Road from Croesor to Nantmor that is called Pont Traed y Mul to this day by the locals (The Bridge of The Mule's Leg). It was named after the occasion when one of the mules got its leg stuck in the gap between two large, flat slates over a drain, could not be extricated and had to be destroyed, leaving the leg stuck between the slates.
The men took the mules to the Dwyryd river at Penrhyndeudraeth to practise swimming a river - which later in Burma they had to do very often. At the beginning of the war the Indians were not armed, but this must have changed as they used to go to the firing range at Trawsfynydd army camp to practise firing.
The round, white tents of the camp would be in rows and the animals were tethered in rows on 'standings'. A bugle would be blown when it was time for feeding and watering the animals at the river.
One local I spoke to could remember the Indians kneeling, praying in rows and the murmuring sound of their praying."
(an account of their time in Porthmadog courtesy of Giovanna Bloor from Llanfrothen)
From Wales, the men and mules were sent to the north of Scotland, with the idea that they might train for a possible landing in Norway. Again, some of the men succumbed to illness in the harsh climate.
Driver Ghulam Nabi and Naik Abdul Rakhman, both of 25 Mule Company, were stationed at Lairg in Sutherland. They died from tuberculosis.
They are buried in Dornoch (Proncynain) Cemetery.
Eventually, in January 1944, the Mule Companies were sent back to India, arriving on April 25th. They were quickly deployed in other theatres of war, notably the Burma Campaign, where 30,000 mules were used.
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