Jackie, the Magaliesberg mountain baboon who ‘fought’ in the WW1 trenches

Who would ever think that a baboon would make it into the South African history  books? But a Magaliesberg mountain baboon, called Jackie, who ‘fought’ with his best friend, Private Albert Marr, in the First World War, did!

Here is Jackie’s story by historian, Vincent Carruthers.

Ninety-nine years ago, on 22 May 1921, a young corporal in the 3rd South African Infantry Regiment died. What distinguished him was that he was a Chacma baboon, born in the Magaliesberg mountain.

Some details have become confused during a century of re-telling, but essentially the story is as follows:

Jackie was found as an infant by Albert Marr on the family smallholding in Villieria in Pretoria. He had probably been orphaned by bounty hunters who were paid by the Transvaal government to shoot baboons raiding crops in the Moot Valley. Albert took the young baboon home and he was raised as a member of the family much like a human child. Jackie and Albert became inseparable.

 In 1914 South Africa joined the Allies in the First World War and Albert Marr volunteered to join the 3rd South African Infantry Regiment in 1915. However, he requested not to be separated from his beloved baboon, and Lt. Colonel Edward Francis Thackeray, Officer Commanding the 3rd South African Infantry, agreed to allow Jackie to join as the regimental mascot. (Thackeray’s first cousin, the astronomer Dr A.D. Thackeray, later helped with the establishment of the Leiden University Observatory on the banks of Hartbeespoort Dam).

Today most people would be appalled at the thought of taking an animal to war but until quite recently, many regiments had animal mascots. Jackie was one of those and, because of his attachment to Private Albert Marr and because of a baboon’s remarkable ability to imitate and learn, Jackie led the life of a full-time soldier. At training camp in Potchefstroom he drilled with the men, carried a wooden rifle, learned to salute an officer and he was reputed to take meals using proper army plates and cutlery. After training he was officially enlisted as a private and issued with a military identity number, pay book, ration card and a specially fitted uniform and cap, complete with regimental brass insignia.

 The 3rd SA Infantry saw its first action in Egypt against the Senussi, allies of the Ottoman Empire, who were threatening the Suez Canal. Albert Marr was wounded in the battle and Jackie, frantic with anxiety, stayed with him, licking his wound until the medics arrived.

After his recovery Albert and Jackie re-joined the 3rd SA Infantry and fought in the trenches on the western front. For two and a half more years the baboon stayed with the regiment and shared the horrific conditions of war in France and Flanders. Although not a combatant in the full sense, he stood guard duty with Albert and his acute hearing and eyesight saved lives on more than one occasion.

 In April 1918, the Germans commenced the Spring Offensive, a massive manoeuvre across the whole western front intended to drive the Allies back before the long-awaited US army joined the war. The 3rd South African Infantry was once more at the front and it was in one of the battles during the Spring Offensive that Jackie was seriously wounded. The South Africans were pinned down under fire and the men hastily built sangars for protection. Jackie was seen to be copying his comrades, piling stones around himself, when he was hit by shrapnel. One paw was injured, and his right leg was almost severed. In agony and fear, he fought off the stretcher bearers who came to his assistance but eventually allowed Albert to carry him off. He was treated by Captain RN Woodsend of the Royal Army Medical Corps who was apprehensive about administering chloroform to an animal. But Jackie survived the anaesthetic and the amputation of his leg and recovered rapidly.

A few months later with the end of the war imminent, Jackie and Albert were shipped back to England where Jackie was feted as a war hero and a number of decorations were added to his uniform. The right sleeve of his battle dress now bore four Overseas Service Chevrons, one for each year he had served, and on the left sleeve he wore a Good Conduct chevron and a brass ‘Wounded in Combat’ stripe. He was also promoted to Corporal. From September 1918 until February 1919 he and Albert were seconded to the Red Cross to raise funds at various functions. For a small donation, members of the public could shake Jackie’s hand and for a bit more they could kiss him.

The now famous Jackie returned to South Africa and after their official discharge from Maitland Camp in Cape Town he and Albert returned to a welcome parade in Pretoria. The following year Jackie led the 1st South African Brigade in the Peace Parade through the streets of Pretoria where he received the Pretoria Citizen’s Service Medal.

 Soon after he returned to the Marr farm in Villieria in Pretoria, Jackie was killed when a fire destroyed the farmhouse. Albert Marr lived until 1973 aged 84.