The Black Mule of Aveluy

A year or so ago, Ben and I were perusing the shops in Brighton when I found a selection of elderly books. I collect antiquarian tomes, and although none of these were really old enough to be of interest to me, I found my eye immediately drawn to a small, tattered book whose half-detached spine proclaimed that it was “Some Animal Stories” by C.G.D. Roberts.

I took it down from the shelf, opened it at a random page, and found myself looking at a mule story.

Reader, I bought the book.

Charles G.D. Roberts (1860-1943) was a Canadian writer who moved to London in 1912 and became a captain in the British Army. I have not been able to ascertain whether he had first-hand experience with mules, but from the way he writes them, I imagine that he must have done. He understands the way mules think and their motivations perfectly. C.G.D. Roberts is a wonderful storyteller and although some parts are hard to read, he captures the horror these men and their mules went through.

Somewhere in the region of 300,000 mules in total were used by the British Army during WW1, many of whom were imported from the USA. They were popular as they endured the terrible conditions of the front-line better than horses, living longer than their short-eared counterparts out of sheer determination. They could carry more weight, get to places the horses couldn’t, and were low-maintenance to maintain.

As this weekend is the centenary of the Great War, and this story is now in the public domain, I thought I would reproduce it here for you to read. Mules and men both; we remember you.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.


Pioneers and Royal Engineers with mules transporting tools and stores. Aveluy Wood, September 1916. Photo from

The Black Mule of Aveluy

From ‘Some Animal Stories’
By Charles G.D. Roberts, 1921

The mule lines at Aveluy were restless and unsteady under the tormented dark. All day long a six-inch high-velocity gun, firing at irregular intervals from somewhere on the low ridge beyond the Ancre, had been feeling for them. Those terrible swift shells, which travel so fast, on their flat trajectory, that their bedlam shriek of warning and the rending crash of their explosion seem to come in the same breathless instant, had tested the nerves of man and beast sufficiently during the daylight; but now, in the shifting obscurity of a young moon harrowed by driving cloud-rack, their effect was yet more daunting. So far they had been doing little damage, having been occupied, for the most part, in blowing new craters in the old lines, a couple of hundred yards further east, which had been vacated only two days before on account of their deep-trodden and intolerable mud. All day our ‘planes, patrolling the sky over Tara Hill and the lines of Regina, had kept the Boches’ airmen at such a distance that they could not observe and register for their batteries; and this terrible gun was, therefore, firing blind. But there came a time, during the long night, when it seemed to reach the conclusion that its target must be pretty well obliterated. Squatting in its veiled lair behind the heights of Ancre, it lifted its raking muzzle, ever so slightly, and put another two hundred yards on to its range.

The next shell screamed down straight upon the lines. The crash tore earth and air. A massive column of black smoke vomited upwards, pierced with straight flame and streaked with flying fragments of mules and ropes and tether-pegs. Deadly splinters of shell hissed forth from it on all sides. The top of the column spread outwards; the base thinned and lifted; a raw and ghastly crater, like some Dantesque dream of the mouth of Hell, came into view; and there followed a faint, hideous sound of nameless things pattering down upon the mud.

Near the edge of the crater stood a big, raw-boned black mule. His team mate and the three other mules tethered nearest to him had vanished. Several others lay about on either side of him, dead or screaming in their death agonies. But he was untouched. At the appalling shock he had sprung back upon his haunches, snorting madly; but the tethering-rope had held, and he had almost thrown himself. Then he had lashed out with his iron-shod heels. But he was tough of nerve and stout of heart far beyond the fashion of his kind, and almost at once he pulled himself together and stood trembling, straining on the halter, his long ears laid back upon his head. Then his eyes, rolling white, with a green gleam of horror at the centre, took note of the familiar form of his driver, standing by his head and feeling himself curiously, as if puzzled at being still alive.

This sight reassured the black mule amazingly. His expressive ears wagged forward again, and he thrust his frothing muzzle hard against the man’s shoulder, as if to ask him what it all meant. The man flung an arm over the beast’s quivering neck and leaned against him for a moment or two, dazed from the tremendous shock which had lifted him from his feet and slammed him down viciously upon the ground. He coughed once or twice, and tried to wipe the reek of the explosion from his eyes. Then, coming fully to himself, he hurriedly untethered his charge, patted him reassuringly on the nose, loosed the next mule behind him on the lines, and led the two away in haste toward safer quarters. As he did so, another shell came in, some fifty yards to the left, and the lines became a bedlam of kicking and snorting beasts, with their drivers, cursing and coaxing, according to their several methods, clawing at the ropes and hurrying to get their charges away to safety.

At any other time the big black mule—an unregenerate product of the Argentine, with a temper which took delight in giving trouble to all in authority over him—might have baulked energetically as a protest against being moved from his place at this irregular hour. But he was endowed with a perception of his own interests, which came rather from the humbler than the more aristocratic side of his ancestry. He was no victim of that childish panic which is so liable, in a moment of desperation, to pervert the high-strung intelligence of the horse. He felt that the man knew just what to do in this dreadful and demoralising situation. So he obeyed and followed like a lamb; and in that moment he conceived an affection for his driver which made him nothing less than a changed mule. His amazing docility had its effect upon the second mule, and the driver got them both away without any difficulty. When all the rest of the survivors had been successfully shifted to new ground, far off to the right, the terrible gun continued for another hour to blow craters up and down the deserted lines. Then it lengthened its range once more, and spent the rest of the night shattering to powder the ruins of an already ruined and quite deserted street, under the impression that it was smashing up some of our crowded billets. A little before daylight, however, a shell from one of our forward batteries, up behind Regina Trench, found its way into the lair where the monster squatted, and rest descended upon Aveluy in the bleak autumnal dawn.

This was in the rain-scourged autumn of 1916, when the unspeakable desolation of the Somme battlefield was a sea of mud. The ruins of the villages—Ovillers, La Boisselle, Pozières, Courcelette, Martinpuich, and all the others which had once made fair with flowers and orchards this rolling plateau of Picardy—had been pounded flat by the inexorable guns, and were now mere islands of firmer ground in the shell-pitted wastes of red mire. Men went encased in mud from boots to shrapnel helmet. And it was a special mud of exasperating tenacity, a cement of beaten chalk and clay. The few spidery tram-lines ran precariously along the edges of the shell-holes, out over the naked, fire-swept undulations beyond Mouquet Farm and Courcelette, where they were continually being knocked to pieces by the “whizz-bangs,” and tirelessly rebuilt by our dauntless pioneers and railway troops. Scattered all about this dreadful naked waste behind our front trenches lurked our forward batteries, their shallow gun-pits cunningly camouflaged behind every little swell of tumbled mud.

And this foul mud, hiding in the deep slime of its shell-holes every kind of trap and putrid horror, was the appropriate ally of the Germans. Stinkingly and tenaciously and treacherously, as befitted, it opposed the feeding of the guns. Two by two or four by four, according to their size, the shells for the guns had to be carried up from the forward dumps in little wicker panniers slung across the backs of horses and mules. It was a slow process, precarious and costly, but it beat the mud, and the insatiable guns were fed.

After the night when the mule-lines at Aveluy were shelled, the big black mule and his driver were put on this job of carrying up shells to the forward batteries. The driver, a gaunt, green-eyed, ginger-haired teamster from the lumber camps of Northern New Brunswick, received the order with a crooked grin.

“Say your prayers now, Sonny,” he muttered in the mule’s big, waving ear, which came to “attention” promptly to receive his communication. “You’ll be wishing you was back in them old lines at Aveluy afore we’re through with this job. Fritzy over yonder ain’t goin’ to like you an’ me one little bit when he gits on to what we’re up to. It ain’t like haulin’ fodder, I tell you that. But I guess we’ve got the nerve all right.”

Instead of rolling the whites of his eyes at him, in surly protest against this familiarity, the black mule responded by nibbling gently at the sleeve of his muddy tunic.

“Geezely Christmas,” murmured the driver, astonished at this evidence of goodwill, “but it’s queer, how a taste o’ shell-fire’ll sometimes work a change o’ heart, even in an Argentine mule. I only hope it’ll last, Sonny. If it does, we’re goin’ to git along fine, you an’ me.” And the next time he visited the canteen he brought back a biscuit or two and a slab of sweet chocolate, to confirm the capricious beast in its mended manners.

Early that same afternoon the black mule found himself in new surroundings. He was at the big ammunition dump which lay concealed in an obscure hollow near the ruins of Courcelette. He looked with suspicion on the wicker panniers which were slung across his sturdy back. Saddles he knew, and harness he knew, but this was a contraption which roused misgivings in his conservative soul. When the shells were slipped into the panniers, and he felt the sudden weight, so out of all proportion to the size of the burden, he laid back his long ears with a grunt, and gathered his muscles for a protesting kick. But his driver, standing at his head, stroked his muzzle soothingly and murmured: “There, there, steady, Son! Keep your hair on! It ain’t goin’ to bite you.”

Thus adjured, he composed himself with an effort, and the lashing kick was not delivered.

“What a persuasive cuss you must be, Jimmy Wright!” said the man who was handling the shells. “I wouldn’t trust you round with my best girl, If you can get a bucking mule locoed that way with your soft sawder.”

“It ain’t me,” replied the New Brunswicker. “It’s shell-shock, I guess, kind of helped along with chocolate an’ biscuits. He got a bit of a shaking up when they shelled the lines at Aveluy night afore last, an’ he’s been a lamb ever since. Seems to think I saved his hide for him. He was the very devil to handle afore that.”

For some way from the dump the journey was uneventful. The path to the guns led along a sunken road, completely hidden from the enemy’s observation posts. The dull, persistent rain had ceased for a little, and the broad patches of blue overhead were dotted with our droning aeroplanes, which every now and then would dive into a low-drifting rack of grey cloud to shake off the shrapnel of the German “Archies.” Of German ‘planes none were to be seen, for they had all sped home to their hangars when our fighting squadrons rose to the encounter. The earth rocked to the explosions of our 9.2 howitzers ranged about Pozières and Martinpuich, and the air clamoured under the passage of their giant shells as they went roaring over toward the German lines. Now and again a vicious whining sound would swell suddenly to a nerve-racking shriek, and an enemy shell would land with a massive cr-r-ump, and a furious blast of smoke and mud would belch upwards to one side or other of the sunken road. But none of these unwelcome visitors came into the road itself, and neither the black mule nor Jimmy Wright paid them any more attention than the merest roll of an eye to mark their billet.

“Change o’ heart hain’t spoiled old Sonny’s nerve, anyhow,” thought the driver to himself, with deep approval.

A little further on and the trail up to “X’s Group,” quitting the shelter of the sunken road, led out across the red desolation, in the very eye, as it seemed to the New Brunswicker, of the enemy’s positions. It was a narrow, undulating track, slippery as oil, yet tenacious as glue, corkscrewing its laborious way between the old slime-filled shell-pits. From the surface of one of these wells of foul-coloured ooze the legs of a dead horse stuck up stiffly into the air, like four posts on which to lay a foot-bridge. A few yards beyond, the track was cut by a fresh shell-hole, too new to have collected any water. Its raw sides were streaked red and white and black, and just at its rim lay the mangled fragments of something that might recently have been a mule. The long ears of Wright’s mule waved backwards and forwards at the sight, and he snorted apprehensively.

“This don’t appear to be a health resort for us, Sonny,” commented the New Brunswicker, “so we won’t linger, if it’s all the same to you.” And he led the way around the other side of the new shell-hole, the big mule crowding close behind with quivering muzzle at his shoulder.

However urgent Wright’s desire for speed, speed was ridiculously impossible. The obstinate pro-German mud was not lightly to be overcome. Even on the firmer ridges it clung far above the fetlocks of the black mule, and struggled to suck off Wright’s hob-nailed boots at every labouring step. Though a marrow-piercing north-easter swept the waste, both man and mule were lathered in sweat. Half their energy had to be expended in recovering themselves from continual slithering slides which threatened to land them in the engulfing horrors of the shell-holes. For all that he had so little breath to spare, Jimmy Wright kept muttering through his teeth strange expletives and objurgations from the vocabulary of the lumber camps, eloquent but unprintable, to which the black mule lent ear admiringly. He seemed to feel that his driver’s remarks, though he could not understand them, were doubtless such as would command his fullest accord. For his own part he had no means of expressing such sentiments except through his heels, and these were now all too fully occupied in their battle with the mud.

By this time the black mule had become absolutely convinced that his fate was in the hands of his ginger-haired driver. Jimmy Wright, as it seemed to him, was his sole protection against this violent horror which kept bursting and crashing on every hand about him. It was clear to him that Jimmy Wright, though apparently much annoyed, was not afraid. Therefore, with Jimmy Wright as his protector he was safe. He wagged his ears, snorted contemptuously at a 5.9 which spurted up a column of mud and smoke some hundred yards to the left, and plodded on gamely through the mud. He didn’t know where he was going, but Jimmy Wright was there, and just ahead of his nose, where he could sniff at him; and he felt sure there would be fodder and a rub down at the end of the weary road.

In the midst of these consoling reflections something startling and inexplicable happened. He was enveloped and swept away with a deafening roar. Thick blackness, streaked with star-showers, blinded him. Though half stupefied, he kicked and struggled with all his strength, for it was not in him to yield himself, like a stricken horse, to any stroke of Fate.

When he once more saw daylight, he was recovering his feet just below the rim of an old shell-hole. He gained the top, braced his legs, and shook himself vigorously. The loaded panniers thumping heavily upon his ribs restored him fully to his senses. Snorting through wide red nostrils, he stared about him wildly. Some ten paces distant he saw a great new crater in the mud, reeking with black and orange fumes.

But where was Jimmy Wright? The mule swept anxious eyes across the waste of shell-holes, in every direction. In vain. His master had vanished. He felt himself deserted. Panic began to clutch at his heart, and he gathered his muscles for frantic flight. And then he recovered himself and stood steady. He had caught sight of a ginger-haired head, bare of its shrapnel helmet, lying on the mud at the other side of the shell-hole from which he had just struggled out.

His panic passed at once, but it gave place to anxious wonder. There, indeed, was Jimmy Wright, but what was he doing there? His body was buried almost to the shoulders in the discoloured slime that half filled the shell-hole. He was lying on his face. His arms were outstretched, and his hands were clutching at the slippery walls of the hole as if he were striving to pull himself up from the water. This effort, however, seemed anything but successful. The mule saw, indeed, that his protector was slowly slipping deeper into the slime. This filled him with fresh alarm. If Jimmy Wright should disappear under that foul surface, that would be desertion complete and final. It was not to be endured.

Quickly but cautiously the mule picked his way around the hole, and then, with sagacious bracing of his hoofs, down to his master’s side. But what was to be done next? Jimmy Wright’s face was turned so that he could not see his would-be rescuer. His hands were still clutching at the mud, but feebly and without effect.

The mule saw that his master was on the point of vanishing under the mud, of deserting him in his extremity. This was intolerable. The emergency quickened his wits. Instinct suggested to him that to keep a thing one should take hold of it and hold on to it. He reached down with his big yellow teeth, took hold of the shoulder of Jimmy Wright’s tunic, and held on. Unfamiliar with anatomy, he at the same time took hold of a substantial portion of Jimmy Wright’s own shoulder inside the tunic, and held on to that. He braced himself, and with a loud, involuntary snort began to pull.

Jimmy Wright, up to this point, had been no more than half conscious. The mule’s teeth in his shoulder revived him effectually. He came to himself with a yell. He remembered the shell-burst. He saw and understood where he was. He was afraid to move for a moment, lest he should find that his shoulder was blown off. But no, he had two arms, and he could move them. He had his shoulder all right, for something was pulling at it with quite sickening energy. He reached up his right arm—it was the left shoulder that was being tugged at—and encountered the furry head and ears of his rescuer.

“Sonny!” he shouted. “Well, I’ll be d——d!” And he gripped fervently at the mule’s neck.

Reassured at the sound of his master’s voice, the big mule took his teeth out of Wright’s shoulder and began nuzzling solicitously at his sandy head.

“It’s all right, old man,” said the New Brunswicker, thinking quickly, while with his left hand he secured a grip on the mule’s head-stall. Then he strove to raise himself from the slime. The effort produced no result, except to send a wave of blackness across his brain. Wondering sickly if he carried some terrible injury concealed under the mud, he made haste to pass the halter rope under his arms and knot it beneath his chest. Then he shouted for help, twice and again, till his voice trailed off into a whimper and he relapsed into unconsciousness. The mule shifted his feet to gain a more secure foothold on the treacherous slope, and then stood wagging his ears and gazing down on Jimmy in benevolent content. So long as Jimmy was with him, he felt that things were bound to come all right. Jimmy would presently get up and lead him out of the shell-hole, and take him home.

Shell after shell, whining or thundering according to their breed, soared high over the hole, but the black mule only wagged his ears at them. His eyes were anchored upon the unconscious sandy head of Jimmy Wright. Suddenly, however, a sharp voice made him look up. He saw a couple of stretcher-bearers standing on the edge of the shell-hole, looking down sympathetically upon him and his charge. In a second or two they were beside him, skilfully and tenderly extricating Jimmy’s body from the mud.

“He ain’t gone west this time,” pronounced one, who had thrust an understanding hand into the breast of the tunic.

Jimmy Wright opened his eyes wide suddenly.

“Not by a d——d sight I ain’t, Bill!” he muttered, rather thickly. Then, his wits and his voice coming clearer, he added: “But if I ain’t, it’s thanks to this here old —— of an Argentine mule, that come down into this hole and yanked me out o’ the mud, and saved me. Eh, Sonny?”

The big mule was crowding up so close to him as to somewhat incommode the two men in their task on that treacherous incline. But they warded off his inconvenient attentions very gently.

“He’s some mule, all right,” grunted one of the bearers, as they got Jimmy on to the stretcher and laboriously climbed from the shell-hole.

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