Teddy The Bear Goes To War: Bruce County Memories

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Credit: Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre, A2018.049.062 Photo: Teddy in Bramshott, England, 1917, with Sgt. David “Bull” Stephens.
Submitted by Robin Hilborn, Bruce County Historical Society

The outbreak of the First World War resulted in a surge of patriotism. The army had no trouble finding recruits in Bruce County. By March 1916 1,156 men had signed up and the 160th Bruce Battalion was rated as “over-strength”.

On June 3, 1916 the entire battalion marched from Walkerton to Chesley to receive its regimental colours from Ontario Premier William Hurst, who was born in Tara. During the march they stopped at Alex Rae’s farm on the 6th concession of Brant, and Alex treated the officers to a bracing drink.

Credit: Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre, A2009.202.024) Photo: 160th Battalion marches through Chesley from Walkerton, June 3, 1916.

After three months’ training in London, Ont. the 160th took a troop train to Halifax and sailed for Britain. It was still training in England when in February 1918 the men of the 160th were dispersed into four different battalions. They were sent to France to reinforce various battalions and no longer existed as a separate Bruce County unit. 

The Bruce was known for its high enlistment rates, and the highest rates were on the Saugeen and Nawash First Nations. The Ojibway viewed participating in the war as helping to defend their homeland and uphold treaty obligations to the Crown dating back to the 1760s.

Many First Nations soldiers had strong hunting and wilderness survival skills and were well respected as scouts and snipers. Several Bruce County First Nations soldiers received medals and had their bravery and prowess in battle mentioned in dispatches.

Credit: Maadookii Seniors Centre and Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre, A2005.018.040 Photo: First World War soldiers from Cape Croker, 1916.

The effort to support the soldiers at home was substantial as well. The Bruce County Preparedness League was initiated to support those Bruce County men who returned from overseas—99 did not.

The Bruce County Archives has preserved copies of “Bruce in Khaki”, the newspaper of the 160th Battalion. Published in England, it acted as “inspiration to our boys” and was “of interest to the folks in the old home land”, as editor Thomas Johnston put it.

“Bruce in Khaki” provided a fascinating insight into the life of Bruce men abroad while waiting to get into the fighting, and not incidentally entertained everyone with its tales of the 160th’s most famous recruit, a rather hairy fellow who was, in fact, a black bear.

Teddy the Bear’s career as mascot of the 160th Bruce Battalion began in 1916, when brothers Jack and Will Hilditch were on home departure leave in Dyer’s Bay. They learned of their father’s orphan black bear cub and resolved that Teddy should return to camp with them as mascot for the battalion.

He travelled all the way to the training base in Bramshott, England and grew to become a “full-sized, well-developed bear with a fine coat of glossy black hair”. As morale-booster-in-chief he entertained the soldiers with displays of boxing, wrestling and walking on his hind legs. A few photos of Teddy have survived—eating an ice cream cone, and chained to his wooden house.

Teddy had some fun in camp when he escaped once. “The first place he visited was the staff office,” the Khaki reported, “and the employees there, never having had the pleasure (or terror) of a visit from a Bruce County bear, immediately vacated the premises and left Teddy master of all he surveyed, but as he found nothing to his liking there, he ambled out and strolled on down the road. Seeing a hut door open he walked in and caused a greater panic than a German would have done. There was a rush for the door at the other end of the hut, so seeing he was not a welcome visitor he went out, and not finding a suitable tree to climb, went up a telegraph pole where he was captured a little later.” 

Teddy was later given to the London Zoo, where he made friends with a dozen other black bear mascots also donated by Canadian regiments, including a somewhat more famous bear, the one named after Winnipeg, known as Winnie-the-Pooh. 

It’s worth a visit to the “Bruce Remembers” web site (bruceremembers.org), created by the Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre, to see the commemoration of over 7,850 local men and women who served Canada in defense of freedom.