Animals in War

Animals in War

 The ‘Animals in War’ Memorial.  Hyde Park, London.

by Brian Nicholls.

Some of you will perhaps have visited the ‘Animals in War’ memorial in Hyde Park. It is an outstanding design and quite different from the classical ‘sculpture on a plinth’ concept with which we are so familiar.

By chance I happened to play a very small part in the shaping of the final design.

However, I need to clearly state that the organisation and creation of the memorial was due to a sustained effort by a highly dedicated and qualified team of people of which I was not a part and with whom I had no direct contact.

The story of what subsequently led to my modest, but I like to think, significant contribution to the concept of the memorial, started when I was nearing retirement from my college post.  Knowing that I would miss the activity of work that I enjoyed, I decide to enlarge on my hobby of Equine Military History by starting a research project on Military Mules in the British and British Indian armies, which I considered to have been somewhat ignored in favour of the more glamorous cavalry horse.

I subsequently made contact with Lt. Colonel Charles MacFetridge, Chairman of the British Mule Society and an ex-commander of an Indian Army Mountain Battery in Burma in WW2. To my pleasant surprise it transpired that he had been seeking a Graduate student to produce exactly the sort of project that I had in mind.

I was not a student, of course, but Charles was enthusiastic about my project synopsis and we built up an excellent relationship.

Not everyone can distinguish a mule from a horse or a donkey. The mule, a sterile hybrid, is the offspring of a large jack donkey (not the usual seaside donkey) and a horse mare.

The confirmation of the foal is determined by the type of mare used. From his or her mother, the mule foal gets body weight and strength and from the sire, small hard feet, great agility in rough terrain, feral strength from his wild heritage and, if well trained and handled, a calm temperament. It is said that you can ‘talk to a horse but you can whisper to a mule’. Military mules were rarely ridden. Fitted with specialised Pack-saddlery, they were led by their own personal handler and carried anything from general supplies, wounded soldiers, wireless sets, pack artillery and a long list of other equipment, weapons and ammunition.

On the ‘Line of March’ many a lonely young soldier has whispered his fears into the long floppy mule ears. He might even have got a soft bray in return. Because of this personal contact, British, Indian and African soldiers often became so sentimentally attached to their charges that when the mule had to be destroyed through injury, the handler was often inconsolable.

Because of their especially calm temperament very large mules, usually Spanish bred, were used in WW1 to pull ambulances. There are records of their crossing flimsy swaying bridges in Mesopotamia, displaying the utmost calmness, when even well trained artillery horses were plunging to their deaths in the swift flowing rivers.

Mules were transported by lorry, train, ship and specially converted aeroplanes and in 1945 were even parachuted on to a training battlefield in a series of successful experiments.

This was in preparation for a planned third ‘Chindit’ expedition but the nuclear attack on mainland Japan in that year, made it unnecessary.

It was therefore the 200 year old story of the military mule that I set out to tell. During my research I received an overwhelming amount of support from private mule owners and military personnel of all ranks who had wartime experience of mules and naturally held the mule in very high esteem. Research opportunities in military facilities, usually closed to the public, became possible that could never have been achieved without their invaluable help.

I was still teaching at this stage and researching in my spare time. There was much publicity about the intended ‘Animals in War’ Memorial and especially about the huge fundraising task that faced the committee. In due course a fundraising reception was to be held at a luxury hotel in central London to which I was invited.

I cannot now recall the exact timing, but in between the sending of the invitations for the fundraising event and the reception itself, I was in my college staff room, looking through the latest Art and Design journals, when, in a sculpture journal, I saw an illustrated preview of the short listed designs for the Memorial.

My specialism was in art and design and I was qualified to make a critical appraisal.

My first reaction was that, a rather decorative prancing horse seemed to be the dominant theme used by most of the designers as a focal point for their concept. My second reaction was that, although the military mule had played a hugely important part in modern warfare and, as far as WW2 was concerned a far superior role to that of the horse, that point had clearly not been understood by the designers. I knew of course that these were only design concepts but I felt that there was a danger that the chosen design might relegate the mule to a subsidiary role. Although this might not have happened I thought it was worthwhile contacting Charles.

He shared my concerns and spoke to a very senior officer of the Mountain Artillery Association of which Charles was a member, and who was in a position to bring some gentle lobbying influence to bear.

I cannot substantiate the subsequent course of action but significantly, within a very short while that particular fundraising reception had been cancelled and with it went my only opportunity to mingle with the ’Great and the Good.’

In due course David Backhouse was commissioned to design what must be one of the finest memorials to animals in war in the world, and one in which the mule is shown in his rightful place of importance and correctly portrayed in that characteristic and stoic manner which is so well remembered by the few surviving military veterans.

I did briefly meet David to pass over to him some photographic reference material from my extensive archive, by then however, I had retired and was about to move to Spain to live. So, for the second time, I missed out on the inaugural celebrations associated with the Memorial.

There was a sad but small compensation in that when Charles died, Joanna Lumley, who had read our book and whose father was a ‘Chindit’* wrote me a very nice personal letter with condolences on the death of ‘our mutual friend’. Very kind of her I thought.

The commemorative flower for military horses, donkeys and mules is a blue cornflower so if you ever happen to be near Hyde Park in London please visit the memorial. It is adjacent to Park Lane and children can walk into it and touch the mules and a horse.

If you happen to have a cornflower or a poppy and a bit of blue tack you can adorn the mules with your own personal bridle rosette.

* The ‘Chindits’ were a WW2 Long Range Penetration Group ranging behind Japanese lines in Burma, using mules and air supply support. Major Lumley was a British Gurkha officer. Casualties in men and animals were very heavy and the operational effect is debated to this day. What is not disputed is the morale boost that it gave to the beleaguered allies in proving that the enemy could be effectively attacked on their own ground.  On the second expedition mules, men, artillery and heavy equipment were flown in by C47 (Dakota) aircraft towing gliders. The civilian designation of the Dakota was a DC 3 and in the early post war years, many were used on the first package holiday routes to Jersey and Spain.