War. War never changes. It can be a serious subject, but there’s a few examples in history that make military matters a bit silly. There’s the Kettle War for example, in which the only casualty was a soup kettle. Or what about the Emu War of 1932, when Australia decided it had enough emus already and sent in the military to reduce the number of the flightless bird. And in the end, it’s actually the emus who won. To quote Major Meredith, a veteran of the great Emu War:
“If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds it would face any army in the world… They can face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks. They are like Zulus whom even dum-dum bullets could not stop.”
But in times of peace, there’s even more time to up the silly ante. For example, Norway took an unusual approach to appointing a Colonel-in-Chief, which is a ceremonial rank usually held by a member of the royal family. But Nils Olav, Colonel-in-Chief of the Norwegian King’s Guard and their mascot, is not royalty. He wasn’t even born in Norway, and currently lives in Scotland. Nils Olav is a king penguin. So he’s sorta royalty, but only in name.
His history goes like this: in 1961 the Norwegian King’s Guard visited the Edinburgh Zoo, and a lieutenant grew very fond of the king penguin colony. The zoo’s first king penguin was given to them by Norway 48 years prior (Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole was Norwegian). The Guard returned in 1972 and the lieutenant, Nils Egelien, adopted one of the penguins. His unit called the penguin Nils Olav, after the lieutenant and the King of Norway at the time, Olav V. Each time the King’s Guard visited the penguin, it got a promotion, starting its career as a lance corporal and climbing up the ranks to eventually become sergeant. But then, Nils Olav died. A very similar-looking penguin took over and was named Nils Olav II. It was this penguin that got the additional position as Colonel-in-Chief and was actually knighted in 2008 (ceremony and everything), meaning he had to be addressed as Sir Nils Olav. By now, it’s the third penguin to take up the mantle, with a promotion to Brigadier, lengthening his name to Brigadier Sir Nils Olav III.
Another military animal with a less succesful but more colourful career is William Windsor (not to be confused with Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, the one married to Kate Middleton). He’s a cashmere goat and served in the 1st Batallion of the British Army, also known as the Royal Welsh. Though William Windsor is a ranking member of the regiment, he’s mostly used in parades and has a ceremonial duty.
William Windsor is descended from the royal goat herd which was given to Queen Victoria by Mohammad Shah Qajar, the Shah of Persia from 1834 to 1848. William was born in Whipsnade Zoo and was only informally known as Billy. He got his more royal-sounding name to suit his new position after being selected for it. He is always accompanied by another Lance Corporal. This handler receives the extra title of “Goat Major”.
William Windsor never got passed the rank lance corporal and was even demoted to fusilier after a certain incident at the Queen’s Official Birthday party in 2006 where he failed to keep in step, refused to keep in line and tried to headbutt a drummer. He had to appear before his commanding officer and was charged with “unacceptable behaviour”, “lack of decorum” and “disobeying a direct order”. Stripped of his rank, other fusiliers no longer had to stand to attention whenever William Windsor walked past. He regained his rank later the same year, after “Billy performed exceptionally well, he has had all summer to reflect on his behaviour at the Queen’s birthday and clearly earned the rank he deserves”. This also meant William Windsor was allowed back in the corporal’s mess. William Windsor retired after 8 years of distinguished service in 2009. He was replaced by William Windsor II. A quote from when the new goat was chosen: “He will receive a ration of two cigarettes per day, which he eats, but will not be permitted Guinness until he is older”.
William Windsor is hardly the first goat to serve in the Army. It supposedly started all the way back in 1775 during the American Revolutionary War, when a wild goat walked onto the Battle of Bunker Hill and was used to carry the Welsh regimental colours. Another goat, Taffy IV, was enlisted in the Welsh Regiment and ‘fought’ several battles during the first World War, surviving Mons, Ypres, Festubert and Givenchy before dying on 20 January 1915 as seen on his medical card:
Taffy IV received three medals posthumously for his contributions in the line of duty.
A third and last example for this post is Wojtek, a Syrian brown bear. As a orphaned cub, he was found by an Iranian boy. Irena Bokiewicz, one of the many Polish refugees from the Soviet invasion of Poland who fled to Iran, fell head over heels for the cub. The lieutenant of the unit that protected the refugees therefore decided to buy the cub from the Iranian boy. The bear spent three months in the refugee camp, being fed condensed milk from an old vodka bottle (because, of course). Wojtek was later on given fruit, marmalade, honey and syrup. His vices included beer which he got as a reward from time to time as well as cigarettes (both eating and smoking them). He loved wrestling and was able to salute when greeted.
Wojtek travelled with the 22nd Artillery Supply Company who give him the name Wojtek, coming from “Wojciech”, meaning “joyful warrior”. He moved with the company to Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. He, together with his squad, was then sent to fight in the Italian campaign, where Wojtek officially became a Private, receiving his own paybook and serial number. He lived together with the other men in tents or in a special wooden crate to transport him on a truck. His greatest moment of glory came in the Battle of Monte Cassino where he helped carry ammunition, never dropping a single crate. In his honour, the official emblem of the 22nd company is a bear carrying an artillery shell.
After the war, Wojtek was relocated to Berwickshire in Scotland and eventually settled in Edinburgh Zoo (why does Scotland get all the military mascots?). The bear enjoyed much attention by the locals, former Polish soldiers (who still tossed cigarettes his way) and press, even appearing frequently on a BBC kids series called “Blue Peter”. Age 21, Wojtek died in December 1963, weighing about 500 kg and measuring over 1.8 meters. Several statues and plaques have been made in his memory. A film about his life was made, narrated by a bear in human form, Brian Blessed.
This blog was brought to you by: Ben Caplan – 40 Days & 40 Nights