Even in times of great difficulty, hope and beauty can be found. Cliche? sure, but the idea is over used not for lack of original thought, rather because it is simply a common occurrence. Anyone who has been through trauma can attest to this, to finding comfort and light in the smallest of things and there is a story (and I stress it is shrouded in myth, the provenance shaky) that nicely summarises this very human phenomenon during the Great War.
The Somme in the Summer of 1916 is not a place that conjures ideas of happiness and life and yet here in the midst of a landscape of death, a donkey who had been captured from the Germans some months earlier, gave birth. The jenny (that’s the donkey equivalent of a mare, by the way) had been in the care of the 1st Battalion The Cameronians who helped to deliver the foal as the battle raged, christening him Jimmy (or as the story is sometimes told, Neddy). As his mother was killed, the men of the Scottish Rifles could not bear to abandon Jimmy and so adopted him as their mascot. So we are left with a bizarre, somewhat mixed up, biblical image, the absurdity of which seems to tug at the heartstrings…
Jimmy was fed on tinned milk, taught to beg for biscuits spread with jam for which he apparently had a great liking. And of course, through the boredom of trench life, he was taught many tricks. From standing on his hind legs, to placing his forelegs around the soldier’s necks and saluting them with a ‘kiss’. Sometimes he would stand at the entrance of the trench, greeting soldiers who passed by, lifting his foreleg to ‘shake hands’.
But donkeys were precious during the war, in conditions where equines were often the sole means of transport, the donkey’s small size and passive nature made them perfect for conveying supplies to the front line. Jimmy did not escape this work, his panniers often laden with ammunition or even whiskey. He was wounded on seven different occasions but survived the war, his decorated brow band a testament to his war service.
After the war, Jimmy was purchased by a dealer in Peterborough and here is where some doubt on his story arises, but we know for certain that he was sold on to Mrs Heath the local Secretary of the RSPCA. Fearing he may still be suffering from shrapnel injuries, she paid to have him X-rayed, and on receiving his clean bill of health he spent the remainder of his years making appearances to raise money for the charity, his trench learnt tricks bringing much joy and amusement to the public. There is even a story that he recognised a former soldier on the Roll of Honour Flag Day in the town centre – saluting Private Dudley with a kiss.
Photos of war time mascots can be tricky to identify, and the tale of Jimmy is by no means unique. But whether true or not, the very fact that these stories were told, documented and continue to be popular today speaks volumes. In the bible the donkey is closely associated with redemption and though the innocence of animals certainly cannot save man from the sins of war, it can provide respite. When madness reigns supreme, the very roots of humanity can often be found in our relationship with creatures removed far from it.