The mules of Minehead
PUBLISHED: 09:00 26 March 2014
In a significant year BBC Somerset's Vernon Harwood has been travelling around Somerset as part of BBC's World War One At Home to hear stories of how World War One impacted on our county 100 years ago
“Minehead was a very fashionable, middle class resort at one time.”
Rita Tremain knows the seaside resort well and as we travel together on the West Somerset Railway she’s pointing at a fading black and white photograph.
“Just imagine the chaos as hundreds of mules descended on the town.”
To be honest, it’s not something I’d ever considered. For me this part of the coast is a place that’s alive with sound; the sea lapping hypnotically on the sand, squeals of delight from children on the beach and the distant chug of a diesel engine as another fishing boat negotiates the harbour. But almost a century ago Minehead echoed to a noise never heard in the town before or since. The sound of restless, whinnying mules and the clip-clop of their hooves as mounted soldiers tried to choral them infront of the railway station and drive them down The Avenue.
Weeks before, these animals had been enjoying the sunny terrain of Argentina and the southern United States. But as World War One raged in Europe, the British Government needed ways to transport munitions and supplies to the troops. With only a finite number of suitable horses to requisition at home, the War Office began importing pack animals from the Americas.
Shipped in to Avonmouth, they were sent by train to depots in Somerset for a few weeks rest and recuperation before their onward journey to the Western Front.
It’s almost impossible to recapture the mood and atmosphere of Somerset in 1915, but at least this wonderful heritage railway means we can follow the exact route the animals took to their temporary homes on nearby farms. It’s a little-known chapter of the county’s history and even amongst local people it mostly remains a mystery. But it’s a subject which fascinates Rita.
Her interest was sparked by her fundraising work for the Exmoor branch of the horse charity, the Brooke. Named after its founder, Dorothy Brooke, and established in 1934 to help abandoned war horses, it’s now the world’s largest welfare charity for working equines. Rita knew that the Brooke’s 80th anniversary co-incided with the centenary of World War One, so she started researching local links and before long was captivated by the story of the mules.
As our train nears Minehead station and the end of the line, I pull on my coat and prepare to leave the carriage, but Rita has one more surprise in store.
“Have you ever seen a mule shoe?” she asks innocently.
Before I have time to answer, she has unfastened the clasp of her handbag and is pulling out a prized possession. As she hands it to me, it’s as if the decades melt away and as I glance towards the station yard I can almost hear the braying of the mules. Forgotten no longer.
Find hundreds of stories about how the country changed during the war on the World War One At Home site – go to bbc.co.uk/ww1
This story and others can be heard as part of World War One At Home on Emma Britton 8.15am from Monday 24 – Friday 28 February. Listen to BBC Somerset on 95.5 FM, 1566 MW and bbc.co.uk/somerset, and on BBC Points West, BBC One, 6.30pm weekdays.