Visionaries of the West – WWI – Winnie

Winnie, as a cub, with one of the Sergeants from the CAVC – Photo taken 1914 Source: Library and Archives Canada.

BY DEBBIE MACRAE

It is August 1914, and World War I has only just begun. The 34th Fort Garry Horse Division is on its way eastward by train from Winnipeg, when they stop at the small community of White River, Ontario.

Harry Colebourn, a young Lieutenant in the Fort Garry Horse Cavalry regiment, is a veterinary surgeon, and encounters a hunter who is selling a female bear cub for $20. She is very young, orphaned, and is domiciled or “socialized” to human contact, likely by the hunter who killed her mother. Harry’s veterinary conscience embraces the young cub, realizing her prospects for a long life are not good. He purchases the bear, which he names “Winnie,” after his adopted hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Enroute to Valcartier, Quebec, Winnie accompanied the horse regiment to report to the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps, where she became the mascot of the Fort Gary Horse Regiment.

Incredibly, Winnie would travel from White River by train to Valcartier, and then overseas from Gaspe Bay aboard the S.S. Manitou, to England, providing entertainment and amusement to the troops with her keen intelligence and endearing affection. Unfortunately, she wasn’t always a favorite with the horses, and she was often blamed for some of their unregimented behaviours. Just her scent was enough to agitate some of the more hot-blooded.

Winnie was to remain with Lt. Colebourn at the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade Headquarters, however, faced with the reality of the front lines, the well-being of the animals, and the overwhelming obligation to defend and protect, Lt. Colebourn was forced to make an emotional decision to find a home for her at the London Zoo when his regiment was sent to fight in France.

Harry Colebourn and Winnie. The Fort Garry Horse Museum and Archives.

Harry would often visit Winnie while on leave. His intention was to take her back to Canada with him to the Assiniboine Zoo in Winnipeg at the end of the war, not realizing it would be four long years before the First World War would come to an end.

Fortunately for Harry, and more so for Winnie, she became a celebrity bruin at the London Zoo, with her amazing personality and gentle demeanour. The zoo-keepers even allowed children to play inside the confines of her pen, bringing a breath of fresh air, and a symbol of hope for those children living in the shadow of a frightening war.

As she grew more and more popular with the children, now Captain, Harry Colebourn resolved to donate her to the London Zoo as a gesture of thanks for the care Winnie had received during her stay. In 1919, the Zoo held a dedication ceremony and erected a plaque dedicated to Captain Harry Colebourn of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps for donating her.One of the more frequent visitors to the zoo, who often entered Winnie’s cage to feed her condensed milk, was a young lad by the name of Christopher Robin Milne. His interest and enjoyment in visiting Winnie would result in his father’s publication of the well-known children’s classic, Winnie-the-Pooh.

Winnie was an inspiration and a symbol of hope for London’s children of the war, as well as a diversion and a source of entertainment for those servicemen dedicated to the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps.

Lt. Colebourn was a visionary in his own right – with the vision to ensure that Winnie should not be maintained in a life of imprisonment – and with the clarity of vision that comes with realizing that moral support can come from the most unusual of sources.

As we approach the 100th Anniversary of the end of World War 1, we remember also, the sacrifice of the animal soldiers and mascots who supported our troops.

Roll of Honour

They shall grow not old
As we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them,
Nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning
We will remember them.

A memorial panel inside McGregor Armoury in Winnipeg, hosts the Roll of Honour for the Fort Garry Horse. The Regiment was formed in 1912, and this memorial commemorates the servicemen who dedicated their lives to service during both the peace time and the war.