Wojtek: The Soldier Bear

 

200px-Wojtek_the_bearWorking on Mum’s memoir has brought up many memories, for me as well as for her. The more I put the work into shape, the more questions it brings up which leads to long conversations over the phone. Sometimes, it’s a date, or a fact I need to check; other times what we’ve been talking about reminds me of a story I vaguely remember being told in my childhood.

Wojtek, the soldier bear, is one of those stories that Dad told me when I was little. I’d forgotten all about it until the husband of a friend, who has a Polish grandfather, mentioned it. Neither of us could remember the details, so some research was necessary.

During WW2 my dad fought with the Second Polish Corps. Like Mum, he was in Iraq, then took part in the Italian campaign, but it was in Iraq that he must have first encountered the Corps’ mascot.

Wojtek was a Syrian brown bear. His mother had been shot by hunters and he was found by a young Kurdish boy, who took him to the railway station at Hamadan, in Iran, hoping to sell the cub. Luckily for him, and for the bear, one of the civilian refugees who was with the Polish army took a liking to the little creature and persuaded a young lieutenant to buy him.

The bear spent the next three months in the refugee camp near Tehran before being donated to the 2nd Transport Company. The soldiers named him Wojtek and very rapidly became one of the men. He enjoyed drinking beer and smoking, or even eating his cigarettes. He even marched alongside the soldiers on his hind legs, because that was what he saw the others doing.

To get him onto a British transport ship, when his unit sailed from Egypt to fight alongside the Eighth Army in the Italian campaign, Wojtek was officially drafted into the Polish Army as a private. Otherwise as a mascot he would have been left behind.

Wojtek had his own paybook, rant and serial number and lived with the other men in tents, or a special wooden crate, which was transported by truck. According to numerous accounts during the battle of Monte Cassino when Wojtek’s unit conveyed ammunition, the bear helped by carrying 45kl crates of artillery shells, without dropping a single one. He’d seen the men doing this and copied them, but while it would take four soldiers to lift one box, Wojtek managed on his own. Due to his role in the battle, he was promoted to the rank of corporal.

After the war, Wojtek was demobbed and finally retired to Edinburgh Zoo where he was often visited by journalists and former Polish soldiers. He also made frequent guest appearances on Blue Peter.

The bear lived on until 1963 and immortalised in a number of sculptures: one by David Harding in the Sikorski Museum in London; a wooden sculpture in Weelsby Woods, Grimsby and in Krakow’s Jordon Park. My favourite, however, is the one in Edinburgh by Alan Beattie Herriot which shows Wojtek and a fellow Polish soldier walking together.

Wojtek in Edinburgh

So much of what I’ve learned about my parent’s history has shown the darker side of war. Wojtek’s story has been a delightful light relief. Now what I need to do is to find out if the story of the bear getting into the men’s tents and eating their soap ration is indeed true…

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#Friday Favourites: War in the Val d’Orcia by Iris Origo

War in Val d'Orcia

 

I’d never heard of this book or the author and am indebted to my friend Heather for introducing me to both.  Looking at the title and reading “An Italian Diary 1943-1944” I was half inclined to leaving it on my to-be-read pile. I’ve read enough harrowing accounts of war not to be particularly inclined to start on another, but there was something about Italian landscape on the cover which drew in me.

I was also intrigued to read that the book was a factual account of those years and had been hidden buried in tin boxes along with the writer’s jewellery to hide it from the retreating German army.

Reading a diary, the expectation is of an emotional life laid bare. “War in the Val d’Orcia” is not like that. The style is sparse, very matter of fact. Talking about a very sick young man Iris Origo writes

“We discuss what is best for him. What he needs is proper nursing at the clinic, but he is at the crossroads, the first place the Germans would search. In the end we decide to leave him where he is.

“And so I go to bed, my heart full of the murdered workmen and the young partisan, who soon must die.”

If this sounds dry, then it belies the courage it took to harbour wounded soldiers, escaped prisoners as well as over twenty refugee children, all the time knowing that if they were caught Iris and her husband could be shot. But even though they had two very young daughters they felt they could not abandon anyone who came to them for help. Together Iris and her husband, Antonio, fed, clothed and interceded with the Germans on behalf of desperate people, who had nowhere else to turn.

Throughout it all, Iris is conscious of how the Italians are being perceived by the rest of the allies and is keen to put the record straight. This and the history of that part of WW2 was new to me.

Shadows On The GrassAlthough I had a lot of research into that period for “Shadows on the Grass” I knew next to nothing about the war in southern Europe. I had no idea, for example,  about the number of political factions and their various stances on surrendering to the allied forces, or continuing to fight with their Nazi allies, nor of the complete exhaustion of the general population who could only hope that the long drawn out campaign would soon be over.

The book was a fascinating insight into a short period of history. More diaries have recently been discovered and I look forward to reading them too.

Thank you Heather.