HE was the Nazi-fighting brown bear and pride of the Polish infantry who saw out his final years in an enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo.
Now a life-size bronze tribute to “Private Wojtek” – an unlikely recruit in the Second World War who carried boxes of live shells to gun emplacements – will be given pride of place in Princes Street Gardens alongside some of the city’s most celebrated luminaries.
The 7ft tall memorial to the Syrian bear has now been given the backing of the city council, and will sit cheek by jowl with the statues of the poet Allan Ramsay and church reformer Thomas Guthrie and just yards from the towering Scott Monument.
Wojtek became a symbol of the Polish wartime struggle after being reared by soldiers from a cub and later being recruited into the regiment after reputedly helping carry ammunition for under-fire comrades. He was also said to drink beer and smoke cigarettes given to him by soldiers.
It is hoped the £250,000 sculpture – created by Alan Herriot and funded by the Wojtek Memorial Trust – will be unveiled in West Princes Street Gardens on May 18, 2014 – the 70th anniversary of the final Battle of Monte Cassino, Italy, of which he was a veteran.
The Trust has been campaigning for years to highlight the bear’s remarkable tale.
Aileen Orr, author of Wojtek The Bear: Polish War Hero, said she was “ecstatic” a prominent location had been found for the tribute after bids for a site at Calton Hill and St Mary’s Cathedral hit the buffers.
She said: “Wojtek deserves to be here and with Edinburgh Castle in the backdrop he looks like he’s standing at Monte Cassino all over again.
“The statue won’t have a plinth and will be almost walking along so people will be able to get their photograph taken next to him. Children will be able to touch him and he will be a hands-on bear like he was in real life.”
Meaning “smiling warrior”, a baby Wojtek became attached to the Polish Second Corps in Persia, in 1942, after a shepherd boy traded him for a cache of tinned meat. The bear travelled with the soldiers to join the fight in Egypt and Italy but within two years had been enrolled in the Polish army, despite strict orders that no animals accompany the soldiers to join the Allied advance on Italy.
After the war, the bear moved with his unit to Berwickshire. When the Polish battalions returned home, Wojtek stayed behind and entered Edinburgh Zoo in 1947, where he spent the rest of his life.
Councillor Lesley Hinds said: “As a council we are happy discussions have been fruitful in terms of getting the statue into Princes Street Gardens.”