Ever sat down to a succulent meal, let’s say Pizza, and wondered where the ruby red tomatoes adorning your meal came from? Or scrolled through Instagram and thought, who was the first celebrity? Did old empires face climate change? Well, in CUB Magazine’s Column ‘The Peculiar Past’, columnist Hannah Cragg has all the answers to your questions. Follow her as she uncovers the dust-coated ancient civilisations, to which we owe more than you might think.
So, we all know that the Poles like to party, right? Well, as it turns out, Polish bears do too. Put your best pair of combat boots on for the story of Wojtek the warrior bear, because things are about to get wild.
How did a 600 pound, (550 on a good day, he says) staggeringly tall, and undoubtedly wild brown bear end up enlisted as a soldier anyway? As it happens, he had a tragic backstory fit for a storybook, as he was found as a cub, orphaned thanks to bear hunting, by a young Iranian boy. Polish soldiers, who had recently been freed from prison camps, happened to be passing by Iranian villages on their way to Iraq when they spotted the unlikely duo, and they took pity on the hungry bear- they were hungry too, and like this hairy orphaned creature, they too were in a place they didn’t belong, many without families or homes to go back to. With few possessions to offer up, they exchanged their highly prized goods- namely chocolate and a tin of beef- for ownership of the bear. Soon he became their comrade, and as long as they had snacks for him he followed them wherever they went.
Now, you may think the battlefields of World War II are no place for a bear. And you’d be right. Bears are not pets (not that pets belong in warzones, either), so whatever you do, don’t try this at home. But since Wojtek had been raised by these soldiers as a cub, he was more of the ‘Brother Bear’ sort than your typical beast. As the Polish soldiers were loving, motherly figures, they fed their new friend with milk. Condensed milk. From a vodka bottle. Even with this sugary diet, the bear quickly grew from a cute, fluffy cub to a giant, man-sized beast, claws and all, and soon it was harder to hide the creature from senior officers. Surprisingly, though, he was allowed to stay with the corps. It seems like an odd decision to make, but we have to remember that these soldiers were suffering daily with feelings of loss, despair, and perhaps what we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A bear, while unconventional, was the perfect way to deal with the stress of their lives, and raising him was a communal activity to cheer the soldiers up during their free time. Sort of like how we bring therapy puppies to schools now to relieve students’ stress. He was even taught to salute. The bear, giving the name ‘Wojtek’, meaning ‘Smiling Warrior’, became their mascot.
Keeping a bear in your corps comes with its fair share of unexpected consequences. For one, Wojtek loved a beer with the boys. He’d never get drunk because of his size, and to be honest, I don’t think anybody has risked answering the eternal question of whether bears can get drunk or not. Things would all get a bit grizzly, for sure. Apparently, once he had finished the bottle, he’d lift it up and peer inside, wondering where the rest was. And like anyone who goes out to Drapers a bit too often, once he had his pint, he liked a cigarette as well. Although Wojtek seemingly preferred to munch on his after the first puff. His personality was almost as big as his size, too. Ever a playful creature, he’d been caught munching on food meant for a feast, and even caused water shortages when he found out how to break into the showers for a drink. But he had his perks, and nobody knew this more than the Polish soldiers who raised him. When news came that the soldiers, including the Poles, residing in Allied forces camp in Iraq were to be sent to fight in Italy, the soldiers knew they’d have to convince the camp leaders to let them bring the bear with them. And what better way to do that than enlist him as an actual soldier? He was quickly given the rank of ‘Private’, had an official service number, and even a paybook. On all levels except physical, the bear was now a man.
Wojtek’s most active role in WWII was during the famed battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, where the Allied forces fought against the Axis for a key fortress in order to gain access to Rome. It was a costly battle, lasting several months, and for the most part the Allied soldiers were ill-equipped for the conflict. However, with luck on their side, and a huge bear, the Polish Corps claimed victory for the Allies. Witness accounts from astonished soldiers all tend to describe one thing: a bear, stomping across the front lines of the battlefield, carrying crates of artillery shells. Surely, both sides must have thought they were losing their minds. Either way, once the battle was over, the Polish Corps changed their insignia to a bear carrying an ammo shell. Wojtek was famous, and hey, if it meant more beer for him, glory had to be a good thing.
Once WWII was over, Wojtek’s family had to make some difficult decisions. They had fears that if they went home to Poland, the bear would be taken and used by Stalin’s men as a Communist icon and figure for propaganda, which was the opposite of what these soldiers wanted to fight for. Instead, some of them took refuge in Berwickshire, on the Scottish border, and settled there with their brother the bear. Eventually he was moved to the Edinburgh Zoo, where he’d continue to salute anyone speaking Polish, or so it’s been said. Unfortunately, he died aged 21, in 1963, but that’s a pretty average lifespan for a bear. What wasn’t average was his life story. He’d inspired and emotionally supported an entire Corps of Polish soldiers in one of the most important battles on the Italian front of WWII, whether he knew it or not. And he continues to inspire people today. If you’re ever in the lovely city of Edinburgh, you can visit him, cast in a bronze statue in the West Princes Street Gardens. He stands on stone imported from Poland, and rumour has it if you leave him a pint of beer, the ‘smiling warrior’ will smile at you, too.
CUB’s Hannah Cragg is a QM historian with a passion for all things Incan. In writing ‘The Peculiar Past’ column she aims to spread her appreciation and passion for forgotten and untold histories. Adding to her impressive character is her skill at playing cello and the bass as well as her previous residence in five different countries.