On my Borders cycle of Sat 10th November I made a special detour to the little Borders village of Hutton to try to find out a little more for this slightly different post.
A low winter sun picked out this Celtic cross that is the war memorial. The grass had been cut around it for Remembrance Sunday.
I had a look around the village but I couldn't find any mention of one of Hutton's more unusual residents and of a heart warming tale at a time when we remember the great loss of war.
When Poland was invaded from Germany in the west and Russia in the east at the start of the second world war the poor Poles who were captured by the Russians were either executed out of hand or were marched off to prison camps to become slave labour (my uncle among them). When the Germans attacked the Russians, the prisoners were released to fight against the Nazis. Not surprisingly the Poles chose not to fight alongside the Russians but to join up with the British forces in the Middle East. It was here in 1942, in Iran, that a local boy traded a tiny orphaned bear cub for a couple of tins of meat. The troops fed the malnourished cub on condensed milk from a vodka bottle and soon adopted him as their mascot.
He was named Wojtek (smiling warrior) and as he grew he learned to wrestle, salute and drink beer. He obviously had the makings of a fine soldier and travelled with his comrades to Syria, Palestine and Egypt.
By 1944 the allied push was on into Italy but the officials at Alexandria would not let an animal aboard ship. It was for troop transport only. Thus Private Wotjek was enlisted, issued with a service number and pay book and standing over 6ft tall and weighing in at around 35 stone, headed off to fight the Nazis at Monte Cassino.
Here he is boarding the ship and heading to battle.
Monte Cassino was pretty horrific for all involved. The Germans were well entrenched in the mountains and the allied forces advance had ground to a halt. The Poles were brought forward for a final onslaught. Despite huge losses and withering fire they fought bravely and through it all was Private Wotjek, lifting cases of ammunition and carrying mortar shells to the front line. Can you imagine being an enlisted German facing overwhelming numbers of allied troops advancing towards you and out of the smoke and explosions comes a bear! His part in the battle did not go unnoticed and the 22nd Artillery Supply Company had a new emblem.
After the war there were many Poles who had the chance to return home but no longer really knew where home was. A few returned to the now Communist Poland, many disappeared off around the world. At the disbandment camp at Hutton in the Scottish Borders a lonely Private Wotjek sat and watched the comrades that he had grown up with leave for better lives. His days of being free to wrestle his friends, and enjoy a beer with the lads had come to an end.
Then the communists wanted him! But they weren't getting a brave bear like Wotjek. Instead he stayed in Scotland at Edinburgh Zoo where many of his old comrades came to visit. He always pricked up his ears when he heard Polish being spoken. His fame spread and he appeared on the BBC television programme 'Blue Peter'. There was even an incident when an old soldier jumped the fence at the zoo and had a wrestle with Wotjek for old times sake.
In 1963 at the age of 22 poor old Wotjek died. The imperial war museum honored him with a plaque as did the zoo.
And now at the Polish memorial Gardens at Bonnington in Leith people gather on Armistice day each year to remember the brave Poles who lost their homeland and gave their lives in conflict and some bring teddy bears to donate to the Sick Kids Hospital and as a little reminder of Private Wotjek, the soldier bear.
The above pictures appear on various sites and finding who to attribute them too is near impossible. A search for Wotjek (pronounced Voytek) brings up loads of sources and there is some film on Youtube.