While my blog’s name, Horses & History, suggests boundaries for my material, horses and donkeys are also part of the same family Equidae and the genus Equus. Close enough is good enough so when a Facebook post last week from The Donkey Sanctuary in Guelph, Ontario caught my attention, I knew I had to write about Jimmy, the little WWI donkey with an incredible start to life that time has never forgotten.
This story begins in the trenches of the infamous WWI Battle of The Somme in France that lasted from July 1st until November 18th, 1916. The trenches were riddled with rodents, lice and disease; mud and filth were abundant; advances were measured in inches and death was everywhere. It was truly hell on earth and over 600,000 British Empire and French soldiers died in the battles.
The crack infantrymen of the 1st Scottish Rifles (later the Cameronian Scottish Rifles) had overrun the German trenches, but had paid heavily for their efforts. They took a brief rest and suddenly a piper began to play. At the same time both German and Scottish soldiers noticed something moving in the middle of the battlefield seemingly startled by the bagpiper’s noise. It wasn’t a wounded man by the shape, but one soldier, perhaps a farm lad from the countryside, recognized the helpless blood and mud covered creature for what it was as it struggled to stand. Taking his life into his hands, he sped across the battlefield and scooped up the tiny animal, born a few hours before when his mother, a German pack mule had been killed. Amazingly, not one German shot was fired at him as he and his bundle scrambled to safety in the filthy trenches. Sam Morrell from the Cameronian Scottish Rifles Association (72) said, “The German side stopped firing and started to cheer as Jimmy was delivered and taken back behind the lines.”
Hit by shrapnel, muddy, bloody and terrified, Jimmy the donkey had found safety in the midst of one of the worst battles of WWI, and to the end of his days he paid his saviours back in spades.
No doubt the sight of this wee waif gladdened the hearts of many of these war weary soldiers who often formed incredible bonds with the horses, donkeys and mules who toiled beside them in the mayhem of war. Jimmy was loved by the men, raised on tinned War Department milk and he worked tirelessly as he grew older by carrying supplies, ammunitions and wounded men.
He himself was wounded many times and was taken away from the front lines and fighting to recover before returning. For his efforts he was promoted to full corporal and his chevrons of rank were put on his harness.
With the end of the war, sadly many of the surviving four legged “soldiers” were considered War Surplus and met with tragic fates at the hands of French butchers or as cart horses and worse. For Jimmy, Lady Luck stepped in again and at a public auction, a Mrs. Heath from Peterborough, England bought him for a few “bob” or a few shillings.
Jimmy the Donkey went on to tackle his next job in life, but happily it was far more pleasant that his first. For the next 20 years Jimmy would spend his days in a small paddock in the town centre and people would visit him and drop coins into a small bucket around his neck for the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). The local newspaper, The Peterborough Citizen ran a weekly column detailing the money donated and Jimmy raised thousands of pounds for this charity.
Jimmy went to the big paddock in the sky to frolic with his other four legged friends in 1943. A monument was erected to honour this donkey with the less than auspicious start in life who ended up being a favourite in his adopted town of Peterborough and well beyond. Over his gravestone his epitaph read: “JIMMY, born on the Somme 1916.”
Now, we fast forward to 2003. Jimmy’s grave in Peterborough’s Central Park had become unkempt and forgotten, but when the town council decided to refurbish the park, Jimmy’s memorial was included. About 2,000 people gathered for his rededication and included a padre, a full Lt. Colonel from The Cameronians, a Pipe Band, The Highland Dancers, The British Legion, the RSPCA, the local cadets, Civic Dignitaries and hundreds of children.
In a recent newspaper article, veteran Sam Morrell admits that he was so taken by the movie War Horse that he put up Jimmy paraphernalia and memorabilia in the museum of the Cameronian Scottish Rifles Association in Hamilton, South Lanarkshire. Jimmy has a new lease on life and has proven to be a huge hit once again drawing large crowds. “He is a big part of the Cameronian history and we want to make sure that he is never forgotten.”
So Jimmy, the WWI orphan donkey who would raise his hoof in a salute when his soldiers returned from patrol and learned to beg on his hind legs for his favourite jam on biscuits, has once again been honoured over 65 years since his passing and almost 100 years since his birth on the war torn and bloody battlefields of France.