Friday, 26 September 2014

World War One was no picnic for teddy bears


Cecil the Great War teddy bear: one of the items on display in 'The Great War at Fairlynch' exhibition in Budleigh Salterton's museum

St Christopher medallions, four leaf clovers, rabbit’s feet...  many people wouldn’t dream of setting out on a journey or an important possibly dangerous  mission without the protection of their favourite charm.  Of special appeal to the inner child in us has been the teddy bear. One of the best known examples was Mr Whoppit, the teddy bear mascot and ‘magic talisman’ which land and water speed record holder Donald Campbell insisted on having with him on every run.

The development of teddy bears in the early years of the 20th century made them the perfect companion for many soldiers during World War One. Averaging only six inches tall they didn’t exactly meet army height requirements and their turn-out was often not of the smartest on parade. But they were loyal, accompanied their men everywhere during the war and sometimes gave rise to the most incredible stories of bravery and true grit.

Such were the soldier bears of the Great War.  Usually given to the men by their mothers, sisters or girl-friends, they were tucked into pockets where they could keep look-out and protect the wearer from danger.  

A famous tale is told of the Campbell twins, both Old Etonian officers decorated for bravery and devoted to their little companions-in-arms.  Grubby was the name of the soldier bear belonging to Second Lieutenant Edward Campbell, MC.  Captured at St Valery in France, the young officer was searched by German soldiers who quickly discovered and seized Grubby to their great amusement. The soldiers’ mockery of Lieutenant Campbell came to an end when a German officer intervened, rescued Grubby and handed him back to his owner.  The pair spent their captivity together as prisoners of war for the next three years and were never parted again from each other.

Edward Campbell’s brother Guy also had his own soldier bear, named Young.  The pair served faithfully together in East Africa during World War One and survived the conflict, Guy being awarded the Military Cross like his brother. 

Another Eton-educated officer famous for his attachment to his teddy was Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Arthur Montague Browning. After a distinguished career in the 1914-18 conflict he commanded the 1st Airborne Division and 1st Airborne Corps during the Second World War, travelling by glider to take part in Operation Market Garden and the assault on Arnhem. In his pack, he carried not just one but three teddy bears and a framed print of Albrecht Dürer's The Praying Hands.

The Canadian War Museum in Ottawa has on display what has been described as “an especially intimate and heartbreaking reminder of the sorrows of war” in the shape of a ragged teddy bear.  The ten-year-old daughter of an army medical officer, had given it to him to keep him safe during World War One. Two years went by and her brother Howard wrote one day to ask “Dear Daddy, I hope you’re well and that the teddy bear is fine.”  The family was devastated when Howard’s letter was returned with a black stamp and the simple message ‘Killed in action. Return to sender.’  The officer had been killed at Passchendaele in 1917.  The teddy bear is on display along with Howard’s letter, donated to the museum by the officer’s grand-daughter.  

The soldier bear on display in Budleigh Salterton’s Museum is named Cecil and belonged to Herbert Alcock Elgee, a Captain in the Royal Engineers who carried him in his knapsack throughout the war.  The Museum’s records state that he was born in 1907 in South Africa and joined the Great Bear Regiment of Canada in 1915.  

Among the stories of Cecil’s heroic deeds is an account of how in 1916, tired after a battle, he crawled into a hole to sleep. The hole turned out to be the muzzle of a German field gun, which Cecil thus put out of action.  Luckier than the Canadian medical officer, Captain Elgee survived the war, although Cecil did not escape totally unscathed: cockroaches apparently ate one of his ears in India.  

After the war the pair lived in Copplestone Road in Budleigh Salterton, where Captain Elgee died in 1957 aged 89. Following his death his daughter, the artist Cecil Elgee, donated the bear to Fairlynch Museum. 

Visit ‘The Great War at Fairlynch’ exhibition at Budleigh Salterton’s very special museum! Reviews include: “Wonderful display on WW1, informative, bright and relevant. Well done!!!” 


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