The Blue Army’s furry friend
Wojtek the bear, who accompanied Anders’s Army in all its battles, was not the only animal to serve in the Polish Armed Forces. Wojtek had a predecessor – a polar bear named Baśka from Murmansk. Her story sheds light on a somewhat forgotten part of the history of Polish military units.
Baśka was born in northern Russia and was conscripted into the Polish Murmansk Battalion. In December 1919, she paraded in front of the Chief of State Józef Piłsudski. Unfortunately, her life ended tragically.
The history of the furry soldier’s unit begins after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and Russia’s withdrawal from the Great War. Polish soldiers who had served in the Tsar’s army were scattered across the territory of the fallen empire.
General Józef Haller, who created the Blue Army, decided to find a purpose for these soldiers in the newly reborn Poland and sent them to fight in the Entente armies alongside the Whites against the Reds. In mid-June 1918, Haller received permission from the allied countries to start recruiting soldiers for the Polish units in Russia. Recruitment commissions were set up in Murmansk and Archangelsk. A unit was formed in the town of Kola (,) which became a battalion with around 300 Polish riflemen. The unit went into battle alongside the British against the Bolsheviks. Our soldiers fought near Lake Onega in Karelia.
Using a bear to woo a woman
“In the early spring of 1919, Archangelsk on the White Sea was occupied by the Entente, which under the dilatory command of the British and on their board and lodging intended to conquer Russia from the North, hang the Red rulers of the Kremlin on lampposts, but more importantly get rich on exploiting its natural resources,” wrote Eugeniusz Małaczewski, who published a book about our heroine in the 1920s called Dzieje Baśki Murmańskiej. Historia białej niedźwiedzicy (The History of the White Bear Baśka of Murmansk)
In 1919, the young bear was bought at a market in Archangelsk by Walenty Karaś, an officer cadet, writes Małaczewski. Karaś competed for a beautiful woman with a captain of the Italian Bersaglieri. Both knew that the object of their desires had a weakness for animals, so they paraded under her apartment with ever bigger beasts. Karaś decided to trump the white fox bought by the Italian, but during a squabble over the woman, the aggressive bear ripped the captain’s pants and scared him. What is worse, the bear killed a dog that attacked her and her luck ran out when it turned out that the dog’s owner was a British general, who went to complain about the bear to the Polish Murmansk battalion commander Major Julian Skokowski.
He detained Karaś for ten days and ordered Baśka to join the unit, nominating her “the regiment’s daughter” and registering her in the machine guns unit’s log.
Corporal Smorgoński was tasked with taming the animal because of his heavy-handed way of training recruits. And –Małaczewski writes – the bear was “tamed like a domestic dog.” She later accompanied the unit “like a pet.”
In the autumn of 1919, Poles were evacuated to the West. Baśka’s “biographer” Eugeniusz Małaczewski maintained that a ship with troops and the bear sailed into the Gdańsk harbour. However a recent BBC report said that the ship “Toloa” did sail from Russia on 20 September 1919, but it went to … Edinburgh.
This story is corroborated by Major Bronisław Duch’s account found in a newspaper published on the occasion of the first congress of the soldiers from Murmansk in 1929. Duch wrote that Poles disembarked in the Scottish port on 2 October. The BBC, quoting local newspapers, reported that Polish soldiers in their characteristic blue uniforms and, of course, the polar bear that accompanied them created a sensation.
Baśka on military parade
On 1 December, Poles left Scotland on board of the Helena, a ship that was to transport them to Gdańsk, but because of a quarrel (for reasons unknown to us) they got only as far as Szczecin. On 4 December, on the same night (that) they sailed into the port, they took a train to Poznan. They crossed the Polish border near Krzyż and reached Modlin, their new station on 6 December. The unit was inspected on the ground by General Haller himself.
In December 1919 Baśka and her whole unit took part in a military parade received by Chief of State Józef Piłsudski on Saski Square in Warsaw. The Murmansk battalion soldiers were treated as real heroes and the bear was admired by the large group of onlookers gathered there.
“When the chief of state wanted to pet her and extended his hand, she instantly gave him her paw,” noted a chronicler. Surviving photographs tell a different story – they suggest that Baśka wanted to get hold of the future marshal with her paw and extended her sharp claws.
“Like attending a sister’s funeral”
The tragedy happened two months later. The bear broke loose from a chain and swam across the Vistula River near the Modlin stronghold. She then went to a nearby village because she trusted people. There she was spotted by a local farmer by the name of Wawrzon, who was busy spreading manure on his farm.
The farmer stabbed her with a pitchfork because he wanted to have a fur for his wife Maryśka. When the soldiers appeared, Wawrzon was already skinning the bear.
Małaczewski described the ensuing dialogue as follows: “Over my dead body! Don’t you know the written law? She is mine because I hunted her down on my property risking my life in the process. I won’t give her up!
“Local people are tough!” called out the desperate Smorgoński. “Guys, that settles it. To arms!
On this command, the soldiers took down the nearby fence, because they did not take guns with them and started hitting Wawrzon, his sons, friends and neighbours with the fury of their whole battalion, attacking with pointed bayonets –acting on their Murmansk war right that trumped any other law.
After recapturing Baśka from the farmers, they placed her on the same poles they used to defeat the farmers and carried her to a boat waiting at the river bank, crestfallen with grief and sorrow, like at their own sister’s funeral.”
The bear was stuffed. It is believed that she stood in General Haller’s office for a short time when he stayed in the Torun house of a gingerbread factory owner. She was later donated to the Museum of the Polish Army in Warsaw. She survived the Warsaw Uprising.
Stella Maria Szacherska in her book Pułkownik Zbigniew Szacherski. Dyrektor Muzeum Wojska Polskiego w latach odbudowy (‘Colonel Zbigniew Szacherski, Director of the Museum of the Polish Army during the reconstruction period’) recalls that “the mascot of Col. Skokowski’s unit which came with him to Poland, (...) survived the occupation in good condition in a special display case.”
Later, however, officers responsible for communist indoctrination from the People’s Army Chief Political and Military Command threw her into a museum storage room together with the rest of memorabilia that spoke of the glorious times of fighting against the Bolsheviks.
What happened to her later? We don’t know. According to one account she was thrown out when the communists were getting rid of everything that was associated with the history of the Second Republic of Poland. Other sources claim that she was donated to the Warsaw Branch of the Polish Hunting Association. Maybe Baśka stands in someone’s apartment to this day?
Author: Marek Kazubal