This week’s virtual journey takes us to Princes Street Gardens, right here in Edinburgh. We will not be covering a long physical distance for this journey. Instead, let’s take a seat on a bench across from one of the most beautiful monuments in our historic city. The travel we will do requires us to go back in time so that we can explore one of the most fascinating stories about the importance of the relationship between humans and animals. The story you are about to learn regards an unlikely hero. It’s a story filled with drama and hope, pain and friendship, humanity and loss, war and peace, and a bear…
To start, we must leave peaceful Edinburgh behind, and travel to Iran in the year 1942. We are in the middle of World War II, near the train station in Hamadan, Iran. It is fair to say that it is not the place, nor the time, where you should be expecting miracles. However, a chance meeting is about to change all that.
Far from their home, a large group of Polish refugees, soldiers and civilians, are arriving into Iran. They have already been through hell and back…a few times. First, their country was invaded by both the Nazis and the Soviets. As for this group, they were imprisoned and enslaved in Siberia and other areas in Russia. Thankfully they were at least released. Yet, they are still exiled and left to seek refuge far from home. They witnessed all the atrocities of the war firsthand- many of them lost loved ones and were orphaned themselves. However, they are about to meet another orphaned soul that would change their lives forever.
The group of Polish soldiers come up on a small Kurdish boy trying to sell them the contents of his rucksack. And, what he pulls out of his bag, melts the hearts of these war-hardened Poles. The boy brings out a small Persian Brown Bear cub. He tells them that he found the orphaned bear cub crying for his mother after she was killed by local hunters. The boy is unable to care for the cub and offers to sell him to the Polish soldiers. The soldiers take pity on the bear cub, and they decide to take on the responsibility of caring for the cute little bundle of fur.
Initially, the cub is malnourished and has some health problems. However, the Polish soldiers continue to nourish and watch after him, even though they are themselves moving around from one refugee camp to another. They become fonder of the growing cub, and even fashion milk bottles out of emptied vodka bottles. The cub becomes attached to his new family members as well and starts to adopt some of the habits of the men around him. He becomes more playful and takes part in recreational activities such as wrestling with the soldiers. He even starts sleeping in the tents with the men. Most importantly, he has found his family. As for the cub, he eventually grows into quite a large bear. They name him Wojtek – which means “happy warrior”- an apt name for this jolly fur-ball.
Along with Wojtek, the Polish soldiers make their way through Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and finally to Egypt, where they join the British Army units. However, there is a problem – no pets or animals are allowed in the camps, transport vehicle, or ships. Thankfully, some problems can be easily resolved. It was time for Wojtek to enlist with the Polish Army! Just like all other soldiers, he enters the military with a rank as a private. The enlistment also comes with some perks too – Wojtek is assigned the same rations as the rest of the men. Unfortunately, he develops some bad habits as a result. This is because the rations include beer and cigarettes. Wojtek becomes quite fond of them both as he drinks beers with the other men, and he also starts smoking and eating cigarettes (keep in mind this was a very different time and place and not something that would be condoned now).
Bad habits aside, Wojtek mimics the men in many other ways as well. He does marching drills with the soldiers, often walking upright on his hind legs and he even learns to salute the officers. He is also helpful around the camps because of his strength, assisting the others by carrying and lifting heavy crates. However, this is a time of war, so all the training is for a reason. Soon enough, the orders come in for the Polish soldiers, including Wojtek, to join the British in their campaign in Italy. Wojtek has grown from a small cub to full grown bear and a soldier. However, the Italian campaign makes him into a hero and a legend!
It is in the Battle of Monte Cassino where Wojtek makes his mark on history. During the battle, Wojtek is the supply line between the artillery in the front lines and the supply regiment in the rear. He runs through the woods carrying 100lbs ammunition crates containing 25lbs artillery rounds. The loads that he carries would take four men to carry! His heroics help the allied forces in their victory and, in honour of his efforts, it is the Polish flag that is hoisted over Monte Cassino after the battle.
His service in the battle does not go unnoticed and he is promoted to the rank of Corporal. But, more importantly, the Polish 22nd Artillery Supply Company adopts a new emblem– Wojtek carrying artillery rounds.
Thankfully, Wojtek survives the atrocities of the Second World War. After the war is over, he relocates to Berwickshire, Scotland. He joins the rest of the Polish soldiers who are stationed at Winfield Airfield, near the town of Hutton in the Scottish Borders. After a couple of years, in 1947, his unit is demobilised and Wojtek needs a new home. It is time for him to retire from his military service and he does so in style- he moves to the Edinburgh Zoo!
Wojtek lives out the rest of his days in Edinburgh Zoo where he is adored by the public. He gets especially excited when he hears Polish visitors– reminding him of his youth spent in the Polish military. The best moments for Wojtek are when Polish soldiers come and visit him. They are easily spotted by other visitors because they salute Wojtek and then toss him packs of cigarettes (once again, please remember- do not give your bears cigarettes or teach them to smoke).
If you are interested in watching a video of Wojtek’s story, we highly recommend this YouTube video done by the Polish Scottish Heritage Project. However, it is now time for us to return to modern Edinburgh and explore how the story of Wojtek continues.
Memorials and different honours have been bestowed upon Wojtek’s memory ever since his adventurous days. Perhaps the most stunning example is the bronze statue by Alan Herriot, unveiled in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens in 2015. That is where we started this journey and where we end it for now.
Rest assured- we are committed to making sure that Wojtek ‘lives on’. As the Polish Scottish Heritage Project highlights, we also love the fact that Wojtek’s and the Polish soldiers’ story shines a light on the humanity that existed during this dark time in our history. Their story resonates with us because of the common bonds that animal and humans shared- many of them orphans as Wojtek was and all of them refugees. Despite the extremely difficult circumstances, Wojtek gave them hope and they shared a friendship that should never be forgotten.
We are proud to be able to keep this story alive with our storytelling and walking tours. Animals are a great vehicle to help share historical stories; just ask our Golden Retriever tour guide, Sawyer. If you follow us on any of our social media platforms (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) , you will see that we visit Wojtek often. Our daily scheduled walking tours do not include a visit to him, but if you ever want us to lead you to him, we will gladly do that on a Private Wee Walk!
Until next time- Explore & Discover!