In the Muck of the Trenches, Missouri Mules were a Soldier’s Best Friend

Jun 27, 2018

During World War One, one of southwest Missouri’s main contributions to the Allied forces was supplying mules and horses for work in the trenches. KSMU went back in time to gain a better understanding about these hardy animals for our Sense of Place series on local history.

Michael Price might be sitting behind a desk, but this man knows a lot more about mules than you might think.

Not raising mules, mind you. But rather, about how these iconic Missouri mammals shaped the First World War. Price works in the local history section of The Library Center in Springfield.

“Even though World War One was clearly a modern industrial war, armies still very heavily relied on horses and mules to transport men and equipment to the front.”

According to Price, commanders in these armies quickly realized how handy mules were for their campaigns. Mules were sure-footed. They could survive the harsh conditions of the trenches. And they were strong.

Mules were responsible for moving fuel and ammunition for tanks, a new invention in this war.

Springfield alone supplied 14,000 mules and horses to the war effort in 1916, according to Price—worth a staggering value of about $2 million.

Springfield became a hub for exporting mules, Price said.

“Perhaps in some way, Springfield was sort of a central location from which horses and mules could be shipped—not only from southwest Missouri but from other surrounding states.”

The Frisco Railroad in Springfield also allowed sellers to transport mules almost anywhere in the country, including harbors where the mules would be shipped internationally.

Mules were used in some areas during the Second World War, too.

“Commanders found that mules were hardy. They endured the rigors of the campaign very well. But certainly it took an enormous toll on them, and they suffered and died just as soldiers did in a very brutal landscape.”

Les Clancy and some of his mules
Credit Claire Kidwell / KSMU

To get a better idea of why a mule would be so valuable to the war effort, I head to a mule farm here in the Ozarks.

“They can be the friendliest thing in the world but they can also be about the meanest thing, but that’s with anything. It’s all how you raise them, how you take care of them.”

That’s Les Clancy of Ozark, Missouri. He’s been taking care of mules since he was about 11 years old. He now runs the Ozark Mule Days here during Labor Day weekend.

We step inside his historic barn, which was built and owned by Civil War Captain George Washington Taylor, from the 1800s.

“He actually raised mules for the service in the military and sold them to the army. And here I am 150 years later, raising mules, being a service guy.”

One of Clancy’s mules was inducted into the army. Corporal Cool-Hand Luke, a 20-year-old mule, became the poster model for mules about six years ago—and his picture now resides in the Pentagon, Clancy said.

Mules still serve as the mascots for the US Military Academy at West Point.

And Clancy says today, there are still places around the world, like Afghanistan and Libya, where the military can’t use trucks or tanks—so they rely on those stubborn, hardy mules to get the job done.