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Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre​

33 Victoria Street North (in the town of Saugeen Shores)
Southampton, ON Canada N0H 2L0

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Teddy Bruce and the 160th: “The Battalion with the Bear”

Home | Stories & Artefacts | Teddy Bruce and the 160th: “The Battalion with the Bear”

If you wish to use or purchase any of these images, please contact archives@brucecounty.on.ca

“The 160th was known as the Battalion with the Bear”, recalled Russel Wagner, a schoolteacher and combat engineer who served with the Battalion during the First World War.

 

Recruitment and basic training for the 160th (Bruce) Battalion began in December of 1915. In May of the following year, 1260 new recruits from towns across Bruce County convened in Walkerton, Ontario to start advanced training. Among this assembly of local lads was one particularly fuzzy recruit (and by-far the youngest): a two-month-old black bear cub named Teddy Bruce, hailing from the woods of the Bruce Peninsula.

 

From Cub to Comrade

 

Black bear cubs normally stay with their mothers for 16 to 18 months, so young Teddy would have required a significant amount of care. Likely orphaned during a hunt, the bear cub ended up in the possession of John Hilditch (sr.) of Dyers Bay. Mr. Hilditch then gave the cub to his two recently enlisted sons, John and William. 21- and 23-years-old, respectively, the Hilditch brothers – described as remarkably dependable young men by multiple accounts – accepted their new ward and united with the Battalion in Walkerton.

 

At the time of his “enlistment”, Teddy probably weighed approximately 5 pounds – smaller than an average housecat (but just as cute). It didn’t take long for the playful little cub to become quite paw-pular amongst the other members of 160th. Though a bear in the barracks may seem like contraband, the Battalion made no attempt to hide their four-legged companion. On May 25, 1916, The Walkerton Telescope reported:

 

“The Signalling Corps [of the 160th Battalion] are very proud of their new mascot ‘Teddy Bruce’. Teddy is a two-months-old bear cub which was brought down from Lion’s Head this week and will head the boys on parade.”

Signal Section of the 160th Battalion, depicting a row of 10 uniformed soldiers standing behind a row of another 11 uniformed soldiers, each kneeling on one knee. Bear cub Teddy Bruce stands on his hind legs and appears to be eating something out of the hand of a soldier in the front row. Teddy appears to be about 2 feet tall while standing. Photo taken in London, Ontario, on July 17, 1916. BCM&CC AX975.043.002

By the time the Battalion boarded S.S. Metagama in Halifax on October 17, 1916, Teddy would have been nearly 7 months old. Smuggling a quickly-growing bear cub aboard a train and a ship likely posed quite a challenge for privates John and William. While Teddy was enthusiastically embraced by the Battalion, military police may not have been quite so accommodating. 160th Battalion veterans speculate that collusion with regimental officers must have been required to achieve the objective.

 

Wobbly footing and lost lunches were commonly shared experiences for those aboard the Metagama during the 10-day voyage to England. Unfortunately, Teddy was not immune to sea-(or home-)sickness. In a letter to his mother on October 19, 1916, John Hilditch wrote:

 

“Teddy Bruce was pretty sick to-day he cried nearly all [morning], I guess he wishes he was back in Canada among his native haunts again.”

 

Once in England, the 160th camped in Bramshott and Witley, where they engaged in further training for over a year. Meanwhile, Teddy grew to be “a well-developed bear with a fine coat of glossy back hair”, as described in one edition of Bruce in Khaki, the newspaper produced by 160th Battalion during their stay in England. At some point during this time, responsibility for Teddy’s supervision was transferred to Lance Corporal John “Buzz” McEachern and Sergeant David “Bull” Stephens, who taught him tricks such as boxing and wrestling.

 

Honourably Discharged

 

As the Battalion began to prepare for mobilization to France, arrangements for Teddy’s accommodations during their absence needed to be considered. A letter from an unnamed officer of 160th Battalion, published in The Canadian Echo on May 2, 1917, wrote:

 

“Our bear has grown to goodly proportions and with prospects of going to France, not very far distant, we communicated with the Zoological gardens in London and find they would keep Teddy until the end of the war for us.”

 

Teddy had his own timeline, however. The November 17, 1917 edition of Bruce in Khaki relays an account of the time that the curious bear escaped from his tether: “being of a roving disposition, [Teddy] took a stroll around the camp”, meandering into huts and offices and eventually climbing up a telegraph pole. Teddy’s misadventure caused quite a commotion and hastened his transfer to the London Zoo.

 

Teddy’s fate after his retirement is uncertain. Some accounts report that he passed away late in 1918. Another account published in the June 3, 1920 edition of The Walkerton Telescope claimed that Teddy was alive and well, and had fathered cubs with two Russian brown bears in the London Zoo.

 

A Few Things to Bear in Mind…

 

Teddy Bruce standing on all fours, tethered to a wooden shed by a leash or chain attached to his collar. Created between 1916 and 1918. BCM&CC A2018.049.059

Pets and mascots including dogs, cats and even goats were very common among military units during the First World War. The increasing popularity of wild animals was becoming a problematic pattern, however. In January of 1917, The Chesley Enterprise reported on the influx of wild animals being relinquished to London Zoo from various military units who had kept them as mascots. Among these was at least one monkey and “no fewer than six black bears”. Of particular concern were Canadian regiments and their fondness for bears.

 

Teddy certainly led a noteworthy life by bear standards and was much beloved by his human compatriots. Nevertheless, it was not without some drawbacks. In the camp, Teddy’s lodgings consisted of a wooden shed to which he was tethered, to prevent him from wandering. In the wild, however, the “home range” of a male black bear can span from 40 to 200 square km. It’s no surprise, then, that he was described as having a “roving disposition”.

 

Many fond memories of Teddy Bruce were shared by 160th veterans during the Battalion’s reunion in 1934.

 

Sources:

 

Bartley, Allan. Heroes in Waiting: The 160th Bruce Battalion in the Great War. Port Elgin: The Brucedale Press, 1996.

“Bear Cub for Mascot.” The Walkerton Telescope, May 25, 1916. Page 1. https://newspapers.brucemuseum.ca/link/newspaper10818

“Black Bear.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Last edited March 28, 2024. https://www.britannica.com/animal/black-bear

Boileau, John. “Animals that Served in the First World War.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Last edited March 29, 2022. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/animals-that-served-in-the-first-world-war

The Bruce Herald, January 22, 1908. Reprint from Wiarton Canadian. No title. Begins “One of the worst snow and wind storms […]”. Page 5. https://newspapers.brucemuseum.ca/link/newspaper1169

“‘Bull’ and the Bear.” Bruce in Khaki vol. 1, no. 4 (November 17, 1917). https://brucemuseum.pastperfectonline.com/archive/3FD0305C-9253-43CE-A9C8-050018247047

“John George (Jack) Hilditch.” Bruce Remembers. Accessed April 1, 2024. https://bruceremembers.org/soldier/?2932

“Letters From Our Soldier Boys.” The Canadian Echo, December 20, 1916. Page 1. https://newspapers.brucemuseum.ca/link/newspaper2071

“Mascots at the Zoo.” The Chesley Enterprise, January 11, 1917. Page 3. https://newspapers.brucemuseum.ca/link/newspaper3532

“The Signals at Home.” Bruce in Khaki vol. 1, no. 2 (October 19, 1917). https://brucemuseum.pastperfectonline.com/archive/69C2A3F3-2137-4406-B20E-910458077570

Treve, James F. and Thomas Johnston. Bruce in Khaki: A History of the 160th Overseas Bruce Battalion. July 2, 1934.

Wagner, Russel. “Reminiscences of the 160th Bruce Battalion.” In Yearbook, 1980, edited by Marion McGillivray, 51-56. Bruce County Historical Society. https://newspapers.brucemuseum.ca/link/newspaper553

“Weight and Age Relationship for Black Bears and Humans”. University of Minnesota. Accessed  April 1, 2024. https://www.vhlab.umn.edu/Tinenstest/curriculum/Weight%20and%20Age%20Relationship%20for%20Black%20Bears%20and%20Humans.pdf

“William Robert Hilditch.” Bruce Remembers. Accessed April1, 2024. https://bruceremembers.org/soldier/?2933

“With the 160th Batt’n.” The Canadian Echo, May 2, 1917. Reprint from The Walkerton Telescope. Page 6. https://newspapers.brucemuseum.ca/link/newspaper2090

 

To learn more about Teddy Bruce and the First World War, Click Here

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