Did You Know? - Winnie the Pooh - the Army connection

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Did You Know? - Winnie the Pooh - the Army connection

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Winnie the Pooh - the Army connection

Wed, 15th May, 2013

Winnie the Pooh - the Army connection

Doctor Harry Colebourn was born in Birmingham in 1887 and came to Canada in 1905 when he was 18 years of age. He settled in Toronto initially and, in order to finance his university education, he worked in menial jobs such as selling fruit from door to door on the streets in Toronto and as a deckhand on commercial vessels plying the Great Lakes. In 1908, he enrolled at the Ontario Veterinary College located in Guelph. On the 25th of April, 1911, he received his degree as a Veterinary Surgeon and following his graduation, he returned to Dewsbury, England to re-unite with his family. Following a short stay, he returned to Canada.

On July 3, 1911, he accepted a veterinary appointment with the Department of Agriculture, Health of Animals Branch, in Winnipeg. In the same year he joined the 18th Mounted Rifles as a Militia Officer and then was seconded to the 34th Regiment of Cavalry, (later named the 34th Fort Garry Horse), on May 15, 1912. He was one of the original officers of the 34th Fort Garry Horse when that unit was formed from 'A' Squadron of the 18th Mounted Rifles. When the First World War broke out in August 1914, he was already a trained officer and immediately offered his services to his country. Subsequently, he was given leave of absence from the Department of Agriculture and left Winnipeg on August 23rd 1914, bound for Valcartier, Quebec. While enroute to Valcartier, he was detached from the 34th Fort Garry Horse and returned to the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps (C.A.V.C.)as all veterinary officers and soldiers were being re-organized for service in the infantry brigades being formed in Valcartier.

On the 24th of August, the train stopped at White River, Ontario where Harry purchased a small black female bear cub for the sum of $20 from a hunter who had killed her mother. Shortly after this, Harry named his little cub "Winnie" after the City of Winnipeg, his home-town. On September 12th 1914, he was taken on strength of the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade Headquarters under the command of Lt. Colonel Arthur W. Currie who was later on to become the commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Harry's six diaries that he kept during the war show that on October 3rd 1914, he and "Winnie" embarked from Gaspe Bay enroute for England aboard the S.S. Manitou along with many other liners filled with troops and equipment heading for England. On October 17th, they disembarked and left Davenport, England, for Salisbury Plain at 7:00 that morning. Winnie was to remain with him and a pet to the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade Headquarters and a Mascot to the C.A.V.C. while he remained in England. Winnie quickly became a pet to many of the soldiers and would follow them around like a tame dog in their off-duty hours at Salisbury Plain. There were numerous photos taken of her with the men and these photos often became a keepsake for them to treasure.

However, this situation was to change when Harry was given the order to remove Winnie from the Brigade Headquarters, as she would not be able to accompany them to the battlefields in France where the brigade was shortly to go. Consequently, on the 9th of December 1914, Harry proceeded to the London Zoo with his 'pet' where he left her in safe keeping until the end of the war. According to his diary writings, it was his full intention to bring Winnie back to Canada with him after the war was over. His diaries indicated that he was very fond of her and would often visit her when on leave from war zones in France.

However, when the war ended in November 1918, Harry remained in England temporarily and in 1919, he reversed his original intentions to bring Winnie home to Winnipeg. Instead, he donated her to the London Zoo as a gesture of his appreciation for the Zoo's efforts in caring for her during those four war years. It was to be noted that Winnie had also become a feature attraction for the many thousands of visitors and especially young children. She was considered to be completely trustworthy by her bear keepers who said that of all the bears they had in the Zoo, Winnie was the only one they could say this about. She was also the tamest and best behaved bear that the Zoo ever had.

The London Zoo in 1919 held a dedication ceremony by erecting a plaque reading to the effect that Captain Harry Colebourn of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps had donated her to the Zoo. Numerous newspaper stories were written telling about this extraordinary bear and her friendly nature and antics. Two of her admirers of that early period after the war were A.A. Milne, a writer, and his young son Christopher Robin. From 1924, they frequently visited the Zoo where the young Milne boy would always want to go and see "Winnie". Christopher was even allowed inside the cage to feed her condensed milk.

In 1926 as a result of his son's keen enjoyment in visiting with Winnie, Mr. Milne published the first and probably the best known of the series of Pooh's Classics called "Winnie-The-Pooh." The other books were called, The House at Pooh Corner, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six.

A meeting between Christopher Robin Milne and Winnie is described as follows:

"So when Christopher Robin goes to the Zoo, he goes to where the Polar Bears are, and he whispers something to the third keeper from the left, and doors are unlocked, and we wander through dark passages and up steep stairs, until at last we come to the special cage, and the cage is opened, and out trots something brown and furry, and with a happy cry of "Oh, Bear!" Christopher Robin rushes into its arms. Now this bear's name is Winnie, which shows what a good name for bears it is, but the funny thing is that we can't remember whether Winnie is called after Pooh, or Pooh after Winnie. We did know once, but we have forgotten..".. --Introduction to Winnie-the-Pooh

The bear was Christopher Robin’s inspiration for calling his own stuffed bear Winnie. In the first chapter of Winnie-the-Pooh, we see the following:

"When I first heard his name, I said, just as you are going to say, "But I thought he was a boy?"
"So did I," said Christopher Robin. "Then you can't call him Winnie?"
"I don't know."
"But you said---"
"He's Winnie-ther-Pooh. Don't you know what 'ther' means?"
"Ah, yes, now I do," I said quickly; and I hope you do too, because it is all the explanation you are going to get..

Winnie-the-Bear passed away on May 12th 1934 at the ripe old age of 20 years, a good life span for a bear.

In 1981 a statue of a bear cub by sculptor Lorne McKean was unveiled at the London Zoo with a plaque commemorating Winnie. In 1992 and 1993 statues of Harry and Winnie by sculptor William Epp were placed in the Winnipeg and London Zoos. In 1997, the town of White River, Ontario, Winnie’s birthplace, put a plaque in the London Zoo commemorating their connection with the famous bear. There is also a statue of Pooh in his tree in White River. On 30 May 1999, a special plaque commemorating the service of Harry Colebourn to The Fort Garry Horse and Canadian Army Veterinary Corps was placed in the London Zoo near the site of Winnie’s home for 20 years. A special musical tribute, "The Fort Garry Suite" was composed for the occasion and played for the first time in public at the ceremony.

To see more photos of Winnie the Bear visit The Fort Garry Horse Photo Gallery.

(Part of this Biographic Sketch was prepared, edited and corrected by CWO Gordon Crossley, FGH Museum and Archives, May 1999/August 2000. Original document on file with the FGH Museum. Harry Colebourn’s son - the late Fred Colebourn, in May 1988. A longer edition of this article originally appeared on the website of The Fort Garry Horse. The Museum is grateful to The Fort Garry Horse Museum and Archives, and to Mr. Crossley, for kindly granting permission to publish this extract.)

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