SOLDIERS' PETS UNDER FIRE
By Major T.J. Edwards, M.B.E., F.R.Hist.S.
Member of the Society for Army Historical Research
Published in The Army Quarterly, Volume LXVI, April and June, 1953
A number of wild animals, or semi-wild ones, have become regimental mascots and Jumbo, the elephant of The Seaforth Highlanders, has already been mentioned. In the Great War of 1914-18 the late General Sir Tom Bridges, K.C.B., K.C.M.G., commanded the 19th Division. In the spring of 1916, whilst on short leave in Paris, he was given a young lion cub, named "Poilu," which he took back to his headquarters in a hamper at the back of his car. When he arrived at his H.Q., his staﬀ eyed the champagne hamper with pleasant expectations, hoping for the best, but when, on raising the lid, a young King of Beasts sprang out, they were visibly sobered. However, Poilu soon became friendly, installed himself honorary member of the mess and before long was dominating life around him. He was a great favourite with the troops who regarded him as their mascot.
For some time he lived right under the German guns at Boombezeele, whose inhabitants viewed him with disgust and sought the aid of the gendarmerie to have him removed as they feared he might pounce upon their children to assuage his enormous appetite. He followed General Bridges like a dog, quite loose and not on a leash, and if any natives saw him coming their way they would rush for cover or shin up the nearest tree. Stolid army mules that never turned a hair under the heaviest enemy bombardment were galvanized into life at the sight of Poilu. Kitchens and meat stores were particular objects of his interest and the hearts of master cooks did not beat anything like normal until he was well away.
He had the run of the officers' mess, but once, having committed a misdemeanour, he was banished to the mess garden as a punishment. During lunch-time he happened to spy one of his favourite dishes being brought in and placed on the mess table. In an instant he jumped through the French windows, smashing them to pieces, and with his mane glistening with broken glass he mounted the table, seized his prize and returned to the garden with it via the smashed windows.
Poilu was not persona gratis with the hierarchy at G.H.Q. and the C.-in-C. particularly did not approve of him. General Bridges received from his friends at court several hints that if young Leo was not sent away from the division there would be trouble, but the only answer he sent to those well-wishers was "Come and take him." He removal was, however, occasioned by other circumstances which the General left on record, thus:
"My headquarters were then in dugouts in Scherpenberg Hill, a prominent point, where distinguished visitors would come and actually see shells bursting. Such callers were frequent and they very often dropped in for refreshment. Mr. Asquith came one day but his climb to the hill-top was interrupted by meeting Poilu face-to-face. 'I May be wrong,' he said, 'but did I see a lion in the path?'"
Whatever entertainment the Divisional Staff enjoyed at seeing a leading statesman thoroughly embarrassed, the incident caused the wires to buzz, but General Bridges took scant notice of the threats he received from G.H.Q.: the lion was the dividional mascot and his presence did much in maintaining the morale of the troops who loved petting him and seeing him scare the mules. Unfortunately General Bridges was wounded in September, 1917, and as his successor had no liking for such "big cats," Poilu was sent home and placed in Mr. Tyrwhitt-Drake's private collection near Maidstone. "Always the perfect gentleman," wrote General Bridges, "he contrived to die, aged nineteen, on the 19th of June, 1935, the mascot of the 19th Division."
The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Queensland)
LONDON, January 16, 1934.
The "Daily Mail" says that "Poilu," a 24-year-old lion, which was presented to Sir Tom Bridges, a former Governor of South Australia, as a mascot, and which lived at the front until Sir Tom Bridges was wounded in 1917, is still alive at Mr. H. G. Tyrwhitt Drake's Zoo, at Maidstone.
Mr. Tyrwhitt Drake says that» the sight of the cub following Sir Tom Bridges in the trenches must have cheered the soldiers and made them feel that they had the British lion with them both in person and spirit.
Sir Tom Bridges's successor found that the cub in time grew too big for a mascot, and sent him to Maidstone, where he sired many cubs.