Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Moose and the Bear that went to War

It was August, 1916. War had made a hard life in Northern Ontario even more difficult. At that time, my great grandfather William Henry Guppy, or "Bill" as he was actually known, had a small business buying and selling furs out of a humble wood-frame store.

To keep food on the table for a wife and six children, he also hunted and trapped in the winter. The most lucrative part of his income however, came from guiding southern tourists looking to hunt and fish in the Canadian north. With the outbreak of the First World War, those tourists had all but disappeared.

This is a faded image of my grandfather's store near Timiskaming Ontario. The store in the wilds of northern Canada sold supplies to fur trappers and groceries to locals and visiting tourists.

Times were tough, but it was more than financial hardship that made my great grandfather sign up to fight for Canada.

He was a woodsman, who lived for adventure. The chance to fight for his country and see parts of Europe were hard to resist.

William Henry "Bill" Guppy (seen on the left) was a short, wiry man. The Native North Americans had named him Pijeense, the Little Lynx because his eyebrows stuck out like the distinctive tufts of fur on the ears of a lynx. My great grandfather is pictured here with his son Willie, who at sixteen, got lost in a snow storm and perished.

Young men had answered the call to battle in the early days of the First World War, but in 1916 the Canadian war effort was asking older men to enlist.

So my 42 year old great grandfather left a wife and large family behind and went with his brother Alex and his seventeen year old son Harold to the recruitment office in North Bay. Ontario.

 The 159th Battalion of the 1st Algonquin Overseas Regiment were known as the "Northern Pioneers". Their motto "Nekahnetah" translates as "Let us lead". Image Source

If it was adventure they were seeking, the early days of their lives as a privates in the 159th Battalion of the 1st Algonquin Overseas Regiment had to have been a huge disappointment.

New recruits from northern Ontario found themselves billeted in a skating rink in North Bay for the winter. Army discipline and order wasn't sitting well with a group of men who made their living in the wild working as woodsmen, lumberjacks, trappers and road builders. Bored and restless, fighting and drinking became a problem.

Looking to build moral, the adjutant in charge sent my great grandfather out to find and purchase a regimental mascot. After a quick break to visit his wife and family, Bill bought a two year old moose cow for fifteen dollars cash.

The mascot of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Battalion. Image Source

A goat, possibly the mascot for the 16th Battalion, marches past Major-General S.C. Mewburn, the Minister of Militia and Defence from 1917 to 1920.  Image Source

Having an animal serve as a wartime mascot was fairly common. In fact animals in general played a key role in the First World War.

A Canadian soldier sits with his dog, reading the day's paper. The packed equipment suggests that he is waiting to move up the line and to the trenches. Image Source

Many soldiers had small dogs and cats as pets. A beloved pet helped soldiers far from home cope with the harsh realities of war.

Dogs played an important role in detecting dangerous gases, explosives and landmines.  Both dogs and cats carried messages onto the battlefield with notes fastened around their necks.

A member of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps and a horse pose wearing gas masks. Horses could withstand higher concentrations of poison gas than humans, but chemicals could still damage their lungs or burn their legs and hoofs, eventually requiring their destruction. Image Source

Members of the 20th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, stand beside their pack horses, loaded with 18-pounder shells. This photograph was taken before the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. At Vimy, the Canadian gunners had an estimated 1.6 million shells and every one had to be carried forward to the guns. Image Source

Battlefields were mud-soaked, and the terrain at the front was often without roads. This made transportation using motor vehicles impossible. Instead horses, mules and donkeys were used to haul food, equipment and ammunition. Horses were even used to carry war wounded.

By the end of World War 1, eight million horses were lost. That's a staggering number!

The only picture that survives showing my great grandfather with Bessie the Moose 
and Kitchener the Bear. From the book King of the Woodsman by Hal Pink.

"Bessie the moose soon became famous," my great grandfather recounts in a memoir entitled King of the Woodsman"She learned to come to me when I whistled a certain call, and would follow round at my heels like a dog when I went out collecting food for her... It was on parade that she shone... Bessie threw out her chest and paraded like a veteran...she walked beside me, step for step, the proudest moose in Canada."

The moose was a great rallying point for the bored and restless men waiting for their time to be deployed. The second mascot Bill was ordered to find and train proved to be a more difficult challenge. My great grandfather recounts that the young bear cub he purchased was “a nasty little brute with a vile temper, showing his teeth and ready to fight at the drop of a hat.”

When the regiment were called up, Kitchener the bear and Bessie the moose boarded the Empress of Britain along with the troops. It was a fourteen day trip to Liverpool, England. Neither Bill nor the bear were seasick, but Bessie faired badly. She grew steadily weaker and eventually died.

A horse drawn hansom cab, circa 1900.  Image from the London Transport Museum.

When the call to the front approached, Bill was ordered to take the bear to the London Zoo for safekeeping. A Canadian black bear was not a typical passenger on an English rail line, so it took quite a bit of persuasion before Bill and Kitchener the bear could board the train bound for London.

When my great grandfather and his bear arrived in London, the station was packed with troops leaving for France and the families seeing them off. The station was quickly in a state of pandemonium, complete with shrieks and yells, as everyone shoved and elbowed to clear a path for the Canadian soldier with his black bear.

Bill and Kitchener rattled through the streets of London in a hansom cab, Kitchener standing on the cab's splashboard, showing his white teeth to the staring crowds of astonished Londoners. 

After releasing the bear into his new pen at the London Zoo, Bill left for the front line in France, where he went for a stretch of 39 days without rest. At one point a German shell exploded burying Bill and several other men alive in their trench. Amazingly, he escaped with only minor cuts and bruises.

In 1917, my great grandfather wrote home in a letter that survives to this day. The letter was written hurriedly in pencil on Salvation Army stationary and uses the plain simple language of a man with limited education. Words are misspelled and sentences run together without capitals or periods. He writes to my sixteen year old grandfather, "Go straight, be gentle and honest and you can't go wrong."

What probably saved my great grandfather's life was a chance friendship he struck up with the army cook of the Fourth Canadian Mounted Rifles. Bill became a cook in the field kitchens for the remainder of the war. The life of a cook was not without its perils. "In the daytime bullets popped and pinged and whizzed by like gnats...", Bill reminisced years later.

After the war Bill went back to the London Zoo to see Kitchener. He recounts in his memoir, "He showed his teeth at me when I spoke to him, and shambled over to inspect me. But I was nothing in his young life now, so with a snort through the bars he rolled away again."

The ending to this story is a sad one. Bill goes on to say,"Years later, in 1937, I learned that Kitchener the mascot had died in London, and had been given a military funeral. Like Bessie the moose, he never returned to his native soil. I've often wondered what he thought about that trip across London in a hansom cab!"


  1. What a great story.. Interesting how live wild animals were used as mascots during war time. Imagine taking a bear around in London!! You are very lucky to have a memoir written by your grandfather.. Especially during that time. I enjoyed the post very much.

    1. Thanks Gerrie, I am glad that you liked the post. My great grandfather's memoir was actually written down by author Hal Pink. Based on the letter Bill Guppy wrote from the front, I'd say he was a man with limited education. His Mom had worked as a teacher before she married, so I am sure she saw to it that he got some schooling, but perhaps not enough to write a book of his adventures. The Guppy family was a large one with many children to feed. My great grandfather was sent out to work for his uncle by age 14. Copies of the memoir are a rare find, but I am lucky that there is a digital version of the book that is online:

  2. Thanks for such a wonderful reminder of another time. I'm so glad you shared some of your family history with us.

  3. Thank you for sharing your family story. Fortunately we no longer need horses to participate in human wars. Sadly dogs are still used, regardless of the comfort they bring to service personnel I think it is immoral to put them in harm's way.

    1. I think war should be avoided at all costs, but some battles seem unavoidable. Until I did the research for this post I was unaware of the staggering number of horses that were killed in the war. It breaks my heart to think of it. I did not know that dogs are still being used. I wonder in what capacity they are used? Like you, I hate to think that any animal might be put in harm's way.

  4. What a wonderful post this is, Jennifer.
    The photographs are so beautiful to me.
    Thank you! This was such a pleasure to read.

    1. If you click the image source links Lisa you'll find many other moving images.

  5. What an interesting story! I had no idea that the troops had mascots; it does seem rather cruel today to think of taking a moose and a bear all the way to London. But I realize times were different then. How wonderful that you have these mementos and memories of your great-grandfather.

    1. We regard animals differently these days. I find my great grandfather's involvement with animal mascots makes an interesting story, but it troubles me at the same time. It's sad that the moose died on a ship far from home. And it breaks my heart that the bear was caged in the zoo. War teaches us many hard lessons.

  6. What a fascinating story! I can't imagine the lives of soldiers then and now, it makes me all the more appreciative for their sacrifices. What a legacy!

    1. I am sure my great grandmother who still had many children living at home when my great grandfather went off to war would have been terrified of losing her husband. When he left to enlist my great grandfather told his sixteen year old son (my grandfather Alfred) that he was to look after the family. What a huge weight that must have been on his young shoulders! So many Canadians lost their lives. Thank goodness my great grandfather Bill wasn't one of them.

  7. A fabulous story, Jennifer, and richly illustrated with fascinating pictures. Was your grandfather's memoir published? If not, maybe it would be a worthwhile project for you!? P. x

    1. The memoir was written down by author Hal Pink. My great grandfather was primarily known as the teacher to one of Canada's first naturalists. This early naturalist was an Englishman who became known as "Grey Owl".
      My great grandfather was colorful character in his own right, so Hal Pink wrote down his story. The author's audience were readers interested in a book of adventures set in untamed northern Canada. The book was published in England, but I am not sure of the date. The online copy of the book dates from the 1940's.


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