There are no trenches in One Hundred Acre Wood. And there weren’t any one hundred years ago either.
Yet what better way is there to introduce children to the centenary commemorations of World War 1, than via the medium of children’s literature and animals?
Few know that Winnie the Pooh’s world was born in war. Even this year’s Passchendaele centenary has a connection to the classic.
Not only do the Winnie’s roots lie in one of the bloodiest conflicts in history, but the long-loved character was based on a real bear cub. Yet far from diets of sticky honey in rural England, the original Winnie was found at a Canadian bus stop in World War 1. Is it worth wondering then, as the children’s tale is so far removed from reality, whether Milne’s diversions were deliberate?
Had it not been for Harry Colebourn, the real Winnie’s story would have a very different ending, and children’s literature a huge omission. It was in 1914, as he made his way across Canada, that the lieutenant veterinarian discovered the baby bear. On his way to look after horses in England, Colebourn rescued the cub from the hands of a hunter, for just $20.
By the time the pair reached Salisbury Plain, they were bosom buddies. The bear earned her name from Colebourn’s hometown of Winnipeg, and she quickly won the affection of his fellow soldiers. Her cheeky and inquisitive nature earned her a regular place in regimental photos, where she would perch on Colebourn’s knee in exchange for condensed milk.
When he was called to France, Harry reluctantly parted with Winnie, recognising it wouldn’t be fair to take a bear to war. Leaving her in the care of London Zoo, Colebourn – like so many soldiers, promised to be home for Christmas. On his return four years later, something remarkable had happened: Winnie had won over a nation. Reportedly the only bear on record to have children allowed in the enclosure with her, Harry had no choice but to accept the English zoo had become Winnie’s home.
One of the children Winnie had charmed was Christopher Robin; the son of AA Milne. It was only then, after a transatlantic adventure and season as a surrogate soldier, that Winnie metamorphosed into the bumbling bear of best-selling books. Winnipeg’s literary legacy is immortal, but it resembles nothing of her real life.
This distance from the truth is even stranger, when you consider that AA Milne served himself as a soldier in WW1. A pacifist, perhaps the author was loath to reminisce about war. Nostalgia may have been especially difficult, as the peacekeeping writer was recruited in WW1 for the sole purpose of penning pro-war propaganda. A member of the military intelligence agency M17B, Milne and 20 other established writers at the time were tasked with painting war pretty. The agency’s aim was to quieten anti-war uprisings and Milne’s poetry confirms his discomfort with this;
“In M1 7b
Who loves to lie with me
— AA Milne, Captain William Shakespeare, of a Cyclist Battalion
Perhaps by the time he wrote Winnie the Pooh, Milne was neither on a mission to champion nor denounce war; he simply wrote a world which many people preferred to forget.
EH Shepard, whose pencil strokes make Winnie The Pooh so instantly recognisable, also served as an officer in Royal Artillery during WW1. The illustrator fought at the Somme, at Ypres and Arras, and earned a Military Cross for his time acting as Captain at the Battle of Passchendaele; the centenary for which is this summer. But Shepard’s talent too, was enlisted to rose-tint the war effort. His satirical sketches of soldiers were regularly published in Punch magazine. Yet the artist’s more personal offerings include a poignant sketch of a map marking the exact co-ordinates where his brother, Cyril, fell at the Somme. Shephard included these details in a letter he wrote to his mother and sister; a touching act which gave them what so many soldiers’ families lacked – a resting place for their boy. Creating a caricature of war clearly wasn’t always Shepard’s prerogative.
So why is war is entirely absent from Winnie The Pooh? Perhaps the story served as sweet oblivion for its veteran author and illustrator. Whilst Winnipeg may have been a real bear, she was a muse for pure fiction.
But if AA Milne had been around today might he have considered writing about war for children?
In recent years, an author-illustrator team are tackling the subject head on. Hilary Robinson and Martin Impey are building an impressive series on the subject and recently won the Historical Association’s 2016 Young Quill Award for Flo Of The Somme – a story that sensitively introduces children to the role of the mercy dogs on the battlefields.
The series, which also features Where The Poppies Now Grow, The Christmas Truce and the soon to be published A Song For Will and the Lost Gardeners of Heligan, proves it is possible to broach topics such as sacrifice, loss, and peace – within a story about war.
The real Winnie provided a rare, child-friendly anecdote against the backdrop of a brutal battlefield. Her true story was left untold, and 100 years on, there are still limited resources for primary school children when it comes to remembrance. Discussing conflict doesn’t have to be synonymous with disrupting peace.
Winnie the Pooh once said;
“I did know once, only I’ve sort of forgotten”
Books such as Flo of the Somme ensure that, especially today, we still remember them.
Hilary Robinson is currently launching a competition with vet charity PDSA, for which Flo of the Somme is part of the prize! If you’re under 16 and feel like writing a story, find out more at the PDSA competition website. In other news Hilary and Martin’s latest book, A Song For Will all about the lost gardeners of Heligan in Cornwall – will be published later this month.