Outside of the main history of war, there are some truly weird stories that lurk between the cracks, and many of these involve rather amazing animals. Our story here begins in 1913, when a man named Albert Marr found something unusual on his family farm in Villieria, now a suburb of Pretoria, South Africa. There alone and crying was a very young Chacma baboon, which was odd because these animals were usually found in troupes of 50 to 100 individuals yet this one was all alone. Marr speculated that the baboon had been orphaned after its troupe had been killed by hunters collecting bounties on baboons that damaged crops. Considering that baboons were largely regarded as vicious creatures, one would think that Marr would have finished the job that the bounty hunters had started, but he took pity on the poor creature and brought it home, naming him “Jackie.” The baboon turned out to be uncommonly tame and easy to train, and before long Marr had fully domesticated and formed a strong bond with Jackie, training him to be a “member of the family.” Little did anyone know at the time that this baboon was destined to become a soldier and actual decorated war hero.
When 1915 came around, World War I was looming, and Marr was enlisted to fight in the 3rd South African Infantry Regiment, often referred to as “The Transvaal Regiment.” He would ask his superiors if he was able to bring along his pet baboon, probably as a joke, so he was rather surprised when they actually allowed him to take Jackie with him. As soon as he arrived, Jackie was welcomed into the ranks of the troops as a mascot, but went above and beyond a mere pet. Jackie, who was uncommonly tame and well-behaved for a baboon, would actually join the troops at boot camp, do training exercises, and even learn how to salute officers, and upon completing training he was given his own little uniform, a regimental brass insignia, a military identity number, pay book, ration card, and even the rank of Private. When he left with his regiment to join the South African Overseas Expeditionary Force in North Africa and Europe, he did so as not a mere pet, but an official soldier.
He started his tour by learning how to light cigarettes for the soldiers, then graduated to carrying supplies back and forth and night sentry duty, easy for him with his heightened senses, becoming a valuable member of team. He even joined the soldiers at the mess hall, where he actually learned how to use a knife and fork as well as a tea-cup, but he was about to take his soldier career even further. When the regiment saw their first real combat action in February of 1916 in Egypt at the Battle of Agagia against the Senussi, allies of the Ottoman Empire, Marr was reportedly injured in battle and Jackie stayed at his side to care for him and lick his wounds until medics arrived. The regiment then found themselves in France at the Western Front, where some of the most vicious fighting of the war was going on at the time. This was a place of terrifying trench warfare, where bloody battles of attrition were carried out that routinely had casualty rates of up to 80%, leaving the terrain littered with bodies, so it seems like hardly the place where a pet baboon would be welcome. Yet Jackie was soon in the fray, allegedly taking part in the Battle of Delvile Wood in July 1916, as well as the Battles of Arras in April 1917, and the Spring Offensive in April of 1918, with Jackie allegedly an indispensable sentry guard. During one particularly intense and ferocious battle during the Spring Offensive, the baboon was seriously wounded by shrapnel after purportedly actually building a wall around himself to avoid enemy fire. Jackie would be collected by medics and taken by stretcher to the camp hospital, where he would sadly lose his right leg. When chloroform was used to put Jackie under for the amputation, doctors were not confident that the baboon would pull through, but amazingly he did. One Lt-Col R N Woodsend of the Royal Medical Corps would say of the situation:
It was a pathetic sight; the little fellow, carried by his keeper, lay moaning in pain, the man crying his eyes out in sympathy, “You must do something for him, he saved my life in Egypt. He nursed me through dysentery”. The baboon was badly wounded, the left leg hanging with shreds of muscle, another jagged wound in the right arm. We decided to give the patient chloroform and dress his wounds. If he died under the anaesthetic perhaps it would be the best thing; as I had never given an anaesthetic to such a patient before, I thought it would be the most likely result. However, he lapped up the chloroform as if it had been whiskey, and was well under in a remarkably short time. It was a simple matter to amputate the leg with scissors and I cleaned the wounds and dressed them as well as I could.” He came around as quickly as he went under. The problem then was what to do with him. This was soon settled by his keeper: “He is on army strength”. So, duly labelled, number, name, ATS injection, nature of injuries, etc. he was taken to the road and sent by a passing ambulance to the Casualty Clearing Station.
Jackie not only fully recovered, but even went back to work, hobbling around and carrying out his normal duties without a leg. It was this bravery that gained Jackie more recognition, and he not only earned the Pretoria Citizens Service Medal, but was also promoted to the rank of Corporal. This baboon had gone from mascot to full-blown war hero, and by the time the war was over his uniform carried the service medal, four Overseas Service Chevrons, one for each year he had served, a Good Conduct chevron, and a brass ‘Wounded in Combat’ stripe.
After his service had concluded, Jackie spent some time in England attending various Red Cross fundraising events, having his picture taken with the public and shaking hands, raising much money for the Widows and Orphans Fund. Jackie was eventually brought back to South Africa, where he was officially discharged with civil employment papers at the Maitland Dispersal Camp in Cape Town, even receiving a military pension like any human soldier. After this he went with Marr back to their farm to lead a quiet life after having both survived the war. There they had a peaceful life until 1921, when Jackie would die in a tragic way, most reports saying from a heart attack brought about by post-traumatic stress disorder, but other reports saying that he died in a fire. Marr himself would live to the ripe old age of 84, passing away in 1973. Jackie remains the only baboon to ever serve as a ranking soldier in South Africa history, and is a weird case of a strange historical oddity and a rather amazing animal.