Wojtek the soldier bear has to be one of my favourite stories from the Second World War.
Adopted as a cub by Free Polish soldiers who were serving in Iran, Wojtek the Brown Bear grew to 6 feet tall and 500lbs, and went on to serve with Polish Forces in Italy, helping carry ammunition throughout the mountainous terrain in Italy. After the war, when Poles who had served with the allies were not allowed to return home, Wojtek saw out his days in Edinburgh zoo in Scotland.
It’s such a heartwarming story, in fact I’m surprised that Disney have never made a film about it. When Prince Charles, William and Harry visited a Polish Museum and the curator showing them round started to explain about Wojtek, Prince Charles told the curator that the young princes were familiar with the story.
Now a £200,000 monument is planned to commemorate Wojtek. A maquette of the planned work, by sculptor Alan Herriot has been unveiled, showing Wojtek and his handler, Peter Prendys. Herriot has deliberately chosen to show the interaction between man and animal, rather than the usual image of Wojtek carrying shells. He must have provided a welcome relief from the horrors of war. I hope the project happens, as I’ve always had a soft spot for the Poles during the Second World War.
Animals have always had a poignant role in war – not having much of a choice, but serving loyally none the less. The play War Horse is receiving rave reviews in the west end at the moment, and the animals in war monument in London is incredibly moving. Wojtek has to be one of the most heart-rendering stories of animals serving during war.
Thanks to John Erickson for the tip-off on this story, which came from the Daily Telegraph.