During World War I, soldiers and sailors on both sides of the conflict used animals for transportation, manual labor, companionship and as mascots. Such was the case for the Fort Garry Horse cavalry regiment, whose mascot was a bear cub named Winnie. (This post is a companion piece to Melina Druga’s WWI Trilogy, Angel of Mercy, Those Left Behind and Adjustment Year, available wherever eBooks are sold.)
The cub was purchased by soldier and veterinarian Harry Colebourn in White River, Ontario, during a railroad stop in August 1914 while he was on his way to train with the Canadian Army Veterinary Corp. in Valcartier, Quebec.
A hunter killed the cub’s mother and was selling the baby for $20. In the early 20th century, it was not uncommon to have a pet bear, so Colebourn purchased her and named her Winnipeg after his home city.
They Called Her Winnie
Winnipeg was sometimes called Winnie, and Colebourn snuck her aboard his ship when he traveled to England.
Winnie was very loyal to Colebourn. She slept in the same tent until she grew large enough to knock the tent down. After that, she was tethered and slept outside.
Winnie stayed with Colebourn until he was deployed to France. He left her at the London Zoo with the intention of taking her back to Canada with him at the war’s end. However, Winnie became popular with zoo goers, especially children, and Colebourn officially donated her to the zoo.
“Winnie provided a welcome distraction as a mascot for the Canadian troops,” author M. A. Appleby says in the book Winnie the Bear. “Her personality caught the attention of the British people during a time of conflict and great uncertainty, and her calm temperament led a young boy to her. Winnie’s unique characteristics and benevolent manner triggered the imagination…”
Winnie died in 1934. Today, you can see a statue of Colebourn with Winnie at Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Zoo. The zoo would have been Winnie’s home after the war had she not stayed in London.
Winnie’s story, however, does not end with her death. She lives on in children’s fiction.
Author A.A. Milne took his son young, Christopher Robin, to visit the London Zoo often during the 1920s. There, the boy fell in love with the bear and renamed his stuffed bear Winnie. Thus, Winnie the war mascot, became the muse for the literary character Winnie-the-Pooh.
Hundred Acre Wood was based on a real location, and many of the characters were based on Christopher’s stuffed animals.
Winnie-the-Pooh first appears in a children’s poem published in 1924. The first book was published two years later.
“Oh, Bear!” Christopher Robin says in Winnie-the-Pooh. “How I do love you!”
“So do I,” said Pooh.”
Updated: 16 October 2020