Faithful “Private Wojtek”, a 6ft tall, 500lb brown bear who served alongside Polish soldiers – and lived out his years after the war in Edinburgh Zoo –will now be honoured with his own special day.
And a simple ceremony to celebrate his life, and those Polish soldiers who cared for him, will be held on Saturday at his memorial statue in Princes Street Gardens at 11am.
It will be the first in his honour since the unveiling of the statue by sculptor Alan Beattie Herriot in 2015.
The Reverend Peter Sutton of St Cuthbert’s Church close to the memorial organised the event with Aileen Orr of Wojtek Scotland, who wrote the story of the bear’s long journey from Persia and whose grandfather, a soldier with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, had travelled with the Poles who had the bear.
Members of the Polish Combatants Association will be in attendance as well as the Consul General of the Republic of Poland in Edinburgh, Ireneusz Truszkowski.
Singer Brigid Mhairi accompanied by Richard Dunn will sing My Love is Like a Red Red Rose, a favourite of the Poles who lived in Berwickshire, where Wojtek was stationed, as well as Polish music and readings.
Aileen Orr is delighted Wojtek and his incredible story will be remembered by generations to come. She said: “Because I was so inspired by the story, I think it is incredibly important to pass it, as it was to me, then it will keep going so people won’t forget.
“It is a very Edinburgh story and much loved by ordinary Scots people as well.”
Adopted as a cub in Iran by a group of Polish soldiers, Wojtek made a name for himself with officers by sniffing out an enemy spy who had entered their camp. He was formally enlisted into the Polish army as a private – complete with his own pay book and serial number – to accompany his unit on a ship to Europe. He rapidly became a celebrity among the allied troops, helping move crates of ammunition during the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. He became the mascot of the Polish II Corps’ 22nd Artillery Supply Company who gave him the name Wojtek – meaning Happy Warrior. The adorable cub was good for morale and was known for enjoying a beer and a wrestle with comrades. He weighed more than 30 stone, so was granted double rations. Wojtek was demobbed with the rest of his unit in Scotland. He lived the rest of his life at Edinburgh Zoo, where he was often visited by former comrades. He died in 1963, aged 21.
The Reverend Peter Sutton said: “As a former Infantry Officer in the Black Watch I am always looking at ways of supporting events that have a military connection and this one is so special. Wojtek the ‘Soldier Bear’ speaks of comradeship, sacrifice, devotion and loyalty he was part of a true Band of Brothers who must never be forgotten.”