Even Sparrows... Bird watchers


Posted: 05.03.20 in Articles category

One of the most remarkable 'man and beast' stories I have heard is the true tale of Wojtek, the soldier bear. In 1942 during the Second World War Polish soldiers in Iran bought a orphaned bear cub from a local boy. They looked after him and named him Wojtek - a Slavic name meaning "Happy Warrior". Initially the bear cub had difficulties swallowing and was fed condensed milk, but subsequently he ate fruit, marmalade, honey and syrup, as well as often being given beer to drink which apparently became his favourite drink. Wojtek enjoyed wrestling with the soldiers, was taught to salute when greeted and soon became an unofficial mascot for Polish soldiers in Iran. He copied what soldiers did, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and marching on his hind legs alongside them.

The Polish 22nd Artillery Supply Company left Iran and travelled through Iraq, Syria and Palestine on route to Egypt where they were to join the British Eighth Army and set sail to invade Italy. Wojtek travelled with them. To circumvent the naval regulations that forbade transporting mascot and pet animals, the bear was officially drafted into the Polish army as a private and enlisted with his own paybook, rank and serial number, as well as having two soldiers assigned to take care of him. Incredibly, Wojtek took part in the fierce battle in 1943 to capture Monte Cassino. His military unit conveyed ammunition to the front and the bear helped, carrying 45kg crates of artillery shells without dropping a single one. He saw the other soldiers stacking crates onto a truck and he copied them, but he could lift boxes alone which normally required 4 men. Wojtek's role in the battle earned him promotion to the rank of corporal and a logo showing him carrying an artillery shell became the official emblem of the 22nd company.

After the war Wojtek went to the Scottish Borders with the rest of his Polish unit. He was stationed near the village of Hutton in Berwickshire and soon became popular with local people. Demobilization followed at the end of 1947 when Wojtek was given to Edinburgh Zoo where he lived the rest of his life. He was often visited by former Polish soldiers who would talk to him and toss him cigarettes which he would eat. The bear remained popular with guest appearances on children's television programmes like Blue Peter before he died in 1963 at the age of 21.

Interest in Wojtek's story has been revived in recent years both in Britain and Poland. For example, I learned about it in 2015 from a Polish academic who proudly showed me Youtube clips featuring wartime photos of the bear. Several memorials have recently been dedicated to Wojtek including statues in London, Edinburgh, Grimsby and Duns. In April 2016 a life-size statue of the bear carrying an artillery shell as he stands on hind legs was unveiled in the main square in Duns - a gift from the Polish town of Zagan with whom the Scottish borders town is twinned.

There are aspects of this tale that may seem unsavoury to us. Was Wojtek coerced in any way to perform unnaturally like a circus bear of old? Was he respected as a bear by being given beer and cigarettes? Yet it's evident from the accounts that Wojtek and the soldiers with whom he lived developed real ties of comradeship, devotion and affection. What an extraordinary story of an animal cooperating and working with people.

....home | who we are | news | events | contact us
Home Who We Are News & Events Contact Us Events
    [type] => 8192
    [message] => Function ereg_replace() is deprecated
    [file] => /home/l4wzgrajwtrm/public_html/includes/functions/_showpage.php
    [line] => 69