Monte Cassino: An almost cruelty-free story of a soldier bear
Our trip to Monte Cassino (Italy), an involuntary witness to one of the most controversial battles of World War II, has so many stories to tell it made us change our two-day trip into a few days’ exploration. This one made me spare a good cup of tears. Bonds between animals and humans are moving enough, but if a bear becomes a legit soldier and field coach— and everything can still be confirmed by the last of his army buddies alive—it makes you hit the keyboard and pay homage, even if you are the umpteenth one to do that. Here is my humble share.
Hamadan, Persia (now Iran), 1941. A carefree brown bear is born. Heart-breakingly, a few months later, before the cub can even feed on his own, his mum gets shot for her meat, fur and bile. Luckily, a little Persian boy who needs a fluffy friend happens to be passing by, and the two decide to stay together. This is the beginning of the story where a little bear is growing up as half-human: trustful, always happy to help and support others.
Not much later, the two little friends encounter Polish soldiers marching from Iran to Palestine – a can of beef, chocolate bar, Swiss knife and handful of coins decide on the bear’s future. You might think that the cub’s little heart broke, having been separated from his saviour. (Maybe at the time, for a while, who knows.) Nevertheless, Wojtek—baptised so by the Polish II Corps—is about to find his safest and happiest place on Earth, on a battlefield.
It’s true that this place is not far from one of the bloodiest front lines and among hundreds of guns. These, however, will never be pointed at the bear for the bunch of meat he is—even though the dietary conditions during the twenty months’ battle at Monte Cassino are murderous, and the soldiers don’t have enough to drink or eat themselves. What is more, his steadily growing (and finally reaching the height of nearly two meters) body calls for a double portion at least. But comrade-in-arms don’t look at one another’s origin, race, or species.
His new Slavic name is not random. It means nothing else but ‘he who enjoys war’, and Wojtek does enjoy his time in the army. When Wojtek’s 17-year-old namesake joins the 22nd Artillery Supply Company where the bear is serving, the newcomer is nicknamed the Little Wojtek, to tell him apart from the Big Wojtek. The Little Wojtek, today 91-year-old Prof. Wojciech Narębski, is the last living combatant who was sharing his battle days with the world famous bear. In his interview for Redakcja Zdrowy-Senior.org, Professor Narębski explains that initially the bear was bought from a local boy as a gift for little Irena, a girl from a Polish refugee camp near Teheran. As I learn at the Memorial Museum at the Polish War Cemetery in Monte Cassino, Wojtek has to bid farewell to a young friend once again in 1942, since he’s becoming more and more naughty as he grows.
To be allowed to sail together his comrades who are going to fight alongside the British 8th Army in the Italian campaign, the bear officially enrols in the Polish Army and receives his very own paybook and serial number as a Private among the soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company. He shares the harsh conditions with his buddies, cheering the soldiers up, and even helping them to carry crates with ammunition during the battle of Monte Cassino. (Prof. Narębski assures that Wojtek was never used for any hard or dangerous tasks and was kept away from the fire line at all times.)
Reaching the size of a proper bear, Wojtek is presented with a spacious wooden crate as his new bed. Apparently, considering the gesture an unnecessary expenditure, the bear continues to sneak into the soldiers’ tents for his usual nightly cuddling. According to the numerous accounts from the 22nd Artillery Supply Company, Wojtek’s irreplaceable sources of pleasure include, among others, drinking beer and eating lit cigarettes. The bear is so harmless that he quickly becomes a fully trusted brother-in-arms. As a pastime, he even wrestles with other soldiers, topping his inevitable victories with gentle licking on the defeated friend’s cheek. He travels with the 22nd Company to Iraq, through Syria, Palestine and Egypt to finally earn a depiction of himself carrying an artillery shell – the official emblem of the 22nd Company.
The war comes to an end, and so does Wojtek’s bucolic tale. In 1945, Wojtek follows the rest of the 22nd Company transported to Berwickshire in Scotland, where they’re stationing at Winfield Airfield on Sunwick Farm. He soon gains popularity among locals and the press, becoming an honorary member of the Polish-Scottish Association, as well as a frequent guest on BBC television’s Blue Peter programme for children. So far, so good – after all, Wojtek enjoys spending time with other people.
Following demobilisation on 15 November 1947, Wojtek is handed over to Edinburgh Zoo, where he is often visited by journalists and former Polish soldiers, but his health and mental state are deteriorating. The 10×10 cage, Wojtek’s new ‘home’, is something beyond his imagination. Why can’t I eat and cuddle with my loved ones, the people? Isn’t there anything to carry,? I can carry something, share a beer. Anybody for sharing a bed on an ice-cold night? It’s me… Wojtek… Wojtek dies in December 1963, at the age of 21.
In 2011 BBC Two broadcast a documentary, “Wojtek—The Bear That Went to War”. The strangest soldier made his posthumous way to the music industry as well. British songwriter Katy Carr, known for her songs about Polish history, released a music video called “Wojtek”, on 17 September 2014—the 75th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland. Wojtek is also mentioned in Hearts of Iron IV, as the ‘Bearer of Artillery’. Finally, in the Scythe board game, he is featured as a war bear in one of the card artworks.
Besides, many memorials commemorating the soldier-bear become erected all over the world. Among others, the Imperial War Museum in London and Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, the Sikorski Museum in London with a sculpture of Wojtek by David Harding, and there’s a statue even in Weelsby Woods, Grimsby. Apparently, plenty of Polish cities pay homage to Wojtek, including Kraków with his statue in Park Jordana. Thanks to Alan Beattie Herriot, Wojtek and a Polish Army Soldier walking in peace and unity can be seen in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens.
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