Horses & History

Princess Louise: Canada’s Equine War Hero

If Princess Louise thought the life was good then, it would only become better. She participated in ceremonies, church, services, and parades.

By: Horses & History |

Princess Louise soon after being saved.

Princess Louise soon after being saved.

The American marines may have their Sgt. Reckless, equine hero of the Korean War, and the British have Warrior who survived the horrors of WWI, but Canadians too have a horse who garnered much love and devotion from the New Brunswick boys who saved her and cared for her in the death riddled days of WWII.

Our story begins one sweltering hot night on September 15, 1944 in the hills near Coriano, Italy with the Canadians fighting tooth and nail to gain ground. The civilians hid wherever they could but their farm animals were not as lucky and before long the fields were littered with dead animals.

On the front lines were the 8th Princess Louise’s (New Brunswick) Hussars. They were mostly farm boys from a Canadian province known for its seascapes, farms and quiet lifestyle and this corner of Italy must have seemed like the most hellish place on earth to them all. In a momentary lull, they heard the cries of an animal in distress. They finally found a young filly of about two or three months old who was hungry, injured and pacing around the dead body of her mother.

Imagine Dr. Tom Dalrymple’s face when he saw that his next patient was not a man but a foal. Lance Sergeant Gerard Kelly was the medic on duty and he recalls that, “The medical officer was Dr. Tom Dalrymple from Vancouver, a very good man too. The foal was not seriously wounded or anything. There was some bad scratches on the leg and the belly as I recall. It was very hot and there were a lot of flies in that country and infection is what you’ve got to really worry about.”

However amidst the carnage, the destroyed homes, buildings and the bodies of the dead and wounded, the Hussars now had a special purpose. They had a defenseless animal in need of help that would come from her human saviours. This task fell to the mechanics and fitters who were not required to fight but to keep all the trucks and vehicles in good order. They were the ones that took care of the foal, changing her dressings on her stomach and watching for infection. Gordon Bickerton was one of the mechanics who helped take care of her and he recalls that she was very kind and easy to care for. In later years he said that during parades she would sometimes fall asleep and he would have to wake her up by tugging on her ear and saying, “Princess Louise, wake up!”

When it came time to name her they men chose the name Princess Louise, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria, who in 1882 consented to honour the regiment with her name and they became known as 8th Princess Louise’s New Brunswick Regiment of Yeoman Cavalry.

Over the next three or four days the fighting continued and the finally Kelly recalls that they got Coriano Ridge just a few miles in from the Adriatic coast. Then the filly reappeared and the men had created a banner for her that went on her back with the words Princess Louise on it.

Princess Louise and Bickerton on parade.

Princess Louise and Bickerton on parade.

The filly took on star status marching in parades and was saluted by soldiers as she became four legged royalty while the men of the 8th Canadian Hussars (Princess Louise’s) cared for her. She was becoming a celebrity mascot. Kelly says that, “Our colonel, especially the second in command of the regiment was Major Bob Ross at the time. He was originally from Hampton, N.B. In the old days the Hussars was a cavalry – a horse regiment and this was just the thing. They didn’t have a horse so he helped every way he could for them to hide this thing and put it in trucks. Every time we moved, they hid it.”

She had to be moved from place to place quietly so a concealed stall was created in a three-ton truck and in this moving home she went through the countryside of France, Belgium and into Holland.

At the end of the war, although most of the regiment had to stay behind because of a shortage of ships, Princess Louise was shipped to New York aboard the Dutch liner Leerdam and from the Big Apple she went to St. John, New Brunswick. She was met with cheering crowds when she arrived on March 27, 1946 and was later reunited with her life savers and those who had protected her, loved her and made her their mascot during the awful days of the war. She was welcomed with an honour guard in St. John with a band, a special greeting from Brigadier D.R. Agnew, Major J.D. McKenna and a parade where she marched with full regalia. She was dressed in her finest maroon patch and wore her service medals with pride including The 1939¬1945 Star, The Italy Star, The France and Germany Star, Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and three Wound Stripes. Even the schoolchildren in Rothesday were taken out of school to give her a rousing welcome from the roadsides.

But, the accolades and awards were not over. She was transported to Hampton where she was given a bale of hay, a bag of oats and a shovel and made a naturalized Canadian and made a free woman of King’s County and the Community of Hampton. She was given the “God given right to trample and eat from any and all vegetable gardens at will, or even from the supplies at Sharp’s Feed Store.” In a final and fitting honour she had her hoof print marked on the membership form of the Hampton Branch of The Royal Canadian Legion and in doing so became a member.

If Princess Louise thought the life was good then, it would only become better. She participated in ceremonies, church, services, and Remembrance Day parades. She ate Lady Alexander’s flowers after a presentation, met Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and other dignitaries.

Princess Louise and Bickerton’s children.

Princess Louise and Bickerton’s children.

She was presented to the Duchess of Kent., Governor General Vincent Massey and General “Fighting Frank” Worthington. So delighted was Worthington at seeing this mare that he jumped on her back after the inspection and rode off the parade square.

Princess Louise died at the age of 29 in 1973 and is buried beside a war memorial in a picturesque park outside the community centre in Hampton, New Brunswick. She had had three foals, Princess Louise II and two sons Prince and Hussar and on her 25th birthday, a birthday party was held in her honour complete with a large cake. Princess Louise II took over as mascot after her mother’s death.

Retired Lance Sergeant Kelly says that having the horse around in the midst of the battles made life a little more bearable for the men and she was a morale booster during the dark days overseas. She was a comic too and enjoyed tobacco, whiskey and beer, recalls Gordon’s Bickerton’s wife Mary who helped care for Princess Louise for years in Canada and was called “the horse’s mother.”

Today the Princess Louise Park Show Centre in Sussex, New Brunswick holds equine clinics, expos, dog agility trials, livestock shows, exhibitions and sales and is gaining a reputation as the principal show facility in the Maritimes of Canada. A fitting tribute to the little mare who made the lives of the men who loved and cared for her a little brighter at a dark time in world history.