Tribute to Voytek, the smoking, drinking fighting, soldier bear
HE ENJOYED a cigarette and a bottle of cold beer and could carry more mortar rounds than any other soldier. But Voytek wasn't one of the ordinary dogs of war – he was a battling bear.
Adopted by the Polish army, the European brown bear "fought" at the bloody Battle of Monte Cassino before dying, not of a bullet wound, but of old age, in Edinburgh Zoo. Now a campaign has been started to build a monument to him.
Voytek was adopted as a cub in the Middle East in 1943, before growing into much more than a mascot. He eventually stood 6ft on his hind legs and weighed 35 stone, and he used his strength to help the armed forces, carrying ammunition at the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy the following year. The four-month battle, one of western Europe's bloodiest, left a quarter of a million soldiers dead.
Voytek – known as the Soldier Bear – was brought to Scotland after the war by Polish troops and was stationed near the Berwickshire village of Hutton, before moving to Edinburgh Zoo, where he died in 1963.
A book telling the remarkable story, due to be released next month, has prompted calls for a statue to the bear at Holyrood.
Statues have been erected in London and in Ottawa, Canada, but none in Scotland.
Campaigner Aileen Orr, who lives in Hutton, said she first heard about Voytek as a child from her grandfather who served with the King's Own Scottish Borderers.
She said: "I thought he had made it up, to be quite honest – it was only when I got married and came here that I knew, in fact, he was here. Voytek was here.
"When I heard from the community that so few people knew about him, I began to actually research the facts.
"It is just amazing, the story is totally amazing, and it would be good if we could have some memorial in Scotland, perhaps at Holyrood, to celebrate the bear's life."
Voytek was found wandering in the hills of Iran by Polish soldiers in 1943. They adopted him and as he grew he was trained to carry heavy mortar rounds. When Polish forces were deployed to Europe, the only way to take the bear with them was to "enlist" him.
He was given a name, rank and number and took part in the Italian campaign.
Voytek saw action at Monte Cassino, before being billeted – along with about 3,000 other Polish troops – at the army camp in the Borders. The soldiers he served with say he was easy to get along with.
Polish veteran Augustyn Karolewski, 82, who still lives near the site of the camp in Berwickshire, said: "He was like a big dog; no-one was scared of him.
"He liked a cigarette, he liked a bottle of beer – he drank a bottle of beer like any man."
When the troops were demobilised, Voytek spent his last days at Edinburgh Zoo. Mr Karolewski went back to see him on a couple of occasions and found he still responded to the Polish language.
He explained: "I went to Edinburgh Zoo once or twice when Voytek was there. And as soon as I said his name, he would sit on his backside and shake his head wanting a cigarette.
"It wasn't easy to throw a cigarette to him – all the attempts I made until he eventually got one."
Garry Paulin, a teacher at Eyemouth High School in Berwickshire, has written a book Voytek – The Soldier Bear, which will be published next month.
BEAR NECESSITIES WORLDWIDE
• IN prehistoric times the bear was worshipped by hunting tribes who saw it as their forefathers' spirit.
• It is a common element in heraldry. Cities around the world have adopted it in their arms, notably the Swiss capital Bern, which takes its name from the German for bear, Br. The bear is also the name-emblem of Berlin.
• The bear is not just a German national symbol but a Russian and Finnish one too. And in the United States, the black bear is the state animal of Louisiana, New Mexico and West Virginia, while the grizzly is the state animal of Montana and California.
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