There are many stories of unlikely friendships between men and their pets, but none is so touching as the one of Albert and Jackie, a South African farmer and his baboon, who were sent to the trenches and lived to tell the tale.
Albert Marr found little orphaned Jackie near his family’s farm near Pretoria at the turn of the twentieth century and took him in as a little brother. He thought the animal how to behave like any other member of the family, even joining them at diner in the evening. Tragedy struck several years later in 1915, when Albert was drafted to defend Mother England in a war that tore apart Old Europe and in its wake, the rest of the world. The man was distraught at the idea of leaving his dear pet and decided to bring it along on his journey. Their first mission led them to Egypt, where they were supposed to defend the colonial empire against rebelling forces. At first, the odd pair was considered a funny distraction by their comrades, but things got pretty serious during the battle of Agagia, on February 26th 1916. Albert took a bullet in the shoulder and was left agonizing for hours, waiting for help. His faithful companion Jackie stayed with him through the entire ordeal and licked the wound in an effort to comfort him.
After that, Jackie was no longer considered a mere pet and was adopted as the mascot of the Third South African Infantry Transvaal Regiment. Furthermore, he got officially enlisted and elevated to the rank of “Privat” and even received his own uniform, made specially for him, complete with brass buttons, regimental badges and a cap. Just like any other soldier, he had the right to his own pay book(!) and rations. Private Jackie marched and drilled with his company and proved to be a welcome distraction from war rage. His way of saluting officers, lighting cigarettes (and moods alike), standing at ease when commanded to do so, placing his feet apart and hands behind his back, and of course his impeccable table manners in particular made him a very popular fellow and much wanted tea-time companion. When Albert caught dysentery due to the poor living conditions in the camp, Jackie nursed him through it.
It wasn’t all fun and games though and when the company was dispatched to the trench war in Belgium and France, Jackie’s sharp animal instincts, heightened sense of smell and piercing eyesight made him a very useful sentinel. He could sense the enemy approaching long belong any of his brothers-in-arms could and started barking or tugging Alberts shirt as a way of warning them. In short: he was like any other soldier, albeit a very short, very hairy one.
The two inseparable friends managed to live through the abominable trench war for quiet some time, but their luck turned in April 1918 when their regiment was heavily shelled during the battle of Passchendale. Eye witnesses recount how Albert went down first and Jackie subsequently panicked, trying to hysterically build a protective wall of stones about himself. Unfortunately, a piece of shrapnel hit him in the arm and the leg, leaving him severely wounded, but still frantically hobbling around, trying to take cover. This time it was Albert, whose wounds proved to be superficial, who stood by his side. The attending doctor described the whole scene in his diary, recalling how Albert was “crying his eyes out while the little fellow lay moaning in pain.” At first, nobody knew if a baboon would even survive the substantial dose of chloroform he was given during his amputation, but he miraculously regained consciousness some days later and quickly recovered from his wounds. The story goes that when an officer visited him on his sick bed, Jackie jumped up and saluted properly. For his bravery, the baboon was awarded a medal for valor and was promoted from private to corporal.
A few months later, the war came to an end, but the same couldn’t be said for Albert and Jackie’s journey. They were shipped to England, wearing their veteran uniform with a gold wound stripe and 3 blue service chevrons (indicating how many years they had fought at the frontline). The Red Cross enlisted them to help raise money for war widows and orphans. By this time, Jackie had become somewhat of a celebrity and people would pay for the opportunity to shake his hand or kiss him on the head. This way they managed to collect a huge amount of money. They were also featured in a lot of military parade to celebrate victory, both in Britain and back home in South Africa, where Jackie proudly received the Pretoria Citizen’s Service Medal. Upon his discharge, he also received a military pension and a civil employment form for discharged soldiers. The pair longed for peace and returned to their family home in July 1920.
The story ends on a sad note though, as both suffered from shell shock and had a hard time dealing with their PTSD. One year after their return, during a particularly intense thunderstorm, Jackie collapsed and suffered a heart attack from the stress. Other accounts say he died in a fire that destroyed the farm. Either way, his remarkable life came to an end and Jackie went down in history as the first and only baboon ever who earned war decorations. Albert would mourn him his entire life and passed away aged 84 in august 1973.