In the spring of 1942, a new Polish Army was being formed in the Middle East under the command of the British and on their way to the organization area, a group of Polish soldiers came across a little bear in the mountainous region of Persia.
The cub was an orphan following the death of his mother at the hands of hunters and he was traded to the soldiers by a shepherd boy who kept the bear in a sack.
Wojtek with a Polish soldier
Eventually, the bear was taken to the 22nd Transport Company, Artillery Division, Polish 2nd Corp where the men would become his companions for the next few years. He was given the name Wojtek.
In Palestine, Wojtek became a hero one night by capturing a thief who had broken into an ammunition compound where the bear was sleeping. The Arab was shocked to find himself confronted by the animal and the commotion that ensued resulted in his arrest. Wojtek was rewarded with a bottle of beer.
As the Polish Army prepared to enter the war zone in Italy during 1943, the problem confronting the Polish soldiers was the question of Wojtek’s status. Animals were not permitted to accompany the army during the fighting. By giving the bear his own paybook, rank and serial number there would be no question that he was now officially a soldier.
In Italy, the Polish 2nd Corps prepared to break through the German defences at Monte Cassino where it successfully captured the stronghold after much bitter fighting.
Wojtek as mascot of the Polish 22nd Transport Company
During the conflict, Wojtek found himself at the artillery firing line where he was seen to move crates of ammunition close to a truck where he was chained. Always inquisitive and willing to copy what the soldiers were doing, he began picking up the crates and moving towards the cannons.
After the battle, the official badge of the 22nd Transport Company became a likeness of Wojtek holding a shell. This symbol appeared on vehicles, pennants and on the uniforms of the soldiers.
Wojtek survived the war and after the demobilisation process he found a home at Edinburgh Zoo.
Wojtek the bear died at Edinburgh in 1963. His death was mourned by many; numerous newspapers published an obituary to the beloved mascot. Today, statues of Wojtek have been erected both in Edinburgh, Scotland and Kraków, Poland.
“The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.” – Arthur Schopenhauer, The Basis of Morality