The story of Nancy the Springbok

‘Nancy’ the 4th Regiment Mascot of the South African Forces. Delville Wood. 17 February 1918. The story of Nancy is quite extraordinary.

Nancy is the only animal in military history to be accorded full funeral honours and to be buried in an Allied war cemetery. This is the story of  famous springbok mascot of the 4th South African Infantry Regiment who died of pneumonia at Hermeton in Belgium during the severe winter of 1918 during World War I.

No more appropriate mascot could have been found. The SA Brigade badge was a springbok head, surrounded by a circle with the motto: “Union is Strength – Eendracht Maakt Macht”.

At her funeral, the firing party fired their volley. As the echoes died slowly away on this quiet afternoon, the regimental bugler, Private A E Petersen, stepped forward; a few seconds later the familiar notes of the Last Post sounded. Once or twice the bugler faltered but nobody seemed to notice. Bugler Petersen sounded the last note and there were tears in his eyes as the officers saluted, then trudged back to their cold and muddy trenches around the village.

Nancy began her army career in March 1915, when her owner, Mrs McLaren Kennedy of the farm Vierfontein in the Orange Free State, took her to Potchefstroom. Nancy was the family pet and was just over a year old when Mrs Kennedy volunteered her for war service.

“I feel,” she wrote to General Tim Lukin, “that if Nancy were adopted by a South African regiment as a mascot, she would keep the memories of South Africa alive.” A few days later she had a reply. It was a telegram from General Lukin: “Delighted with your offer,” it said. “Please bring her.”

And so began Nancy’s army training. She was put in the charge of Private Petersen and during the following six months was taught to respond to all the regimental calls, as well as conduct herself with dignity on the parade ground and on ceremonial occasions.

At the beginning of September, the regiment was ordered to entrain for Cape Town prior to sailing in HMT Balmoral Castle for service overseas. Mrs Kennedy was invited to Potchefstroom to say farewell to Nancy.

On their arrival in England, the regiment continued its training, and set sail for Egypt early the following year. The heat and rolling sand dunes were more to Nancy’s liking than the English winter. At Mex Camp in Alexandria, where her unit was completing its training, Nancy was always the centre of admiring crowds.

And then one morning she failed to turn up for parade. She had parted her rope leash and was absent without leave. By midday, her disappearance was regarded as serious, she was posted up in regimental orders as AWOL, and the news of her absence had spread to all the camps in the area. That afternoon, Bugler Petersen was given a special pass to proceed to Alexandria, in case Nancy had made for the city. At sundown a despondent Bugler Petersen returned to camp, but he would not give up the search.

With Nancy still AWOL the following morning, the matter became serious – both from a sentimental and a morale point of view. All parades were cancelled and a house-to-house search was started. There had been a suspicion that Nancy may have met her end as dinner to some Egyptian family. The search ended at sundown when the men returned dejectedly to their camp. It was on the third day, as the men were parading for their midday meal, that the sound of cheering broke out in the lines. Earlier a `patrol` of skirling pipers was sent out; each piper went in a different direction into the desert in the hope that the music of the bagpipes would succeed where all else had failed. As all regimental calls in the camp had been sounded on the pipes and Nancy had already learnt how to step it out in an orderly fashion in front of the pipe band when on parade. The pipe music worked like magic.

The next moment Nancy appeared, prancing as if nothing was amiss. Where she had been remained a mystery, despite the fact that thousands of troops had kept a look out for her.

After the Egyptian campaign, Nancy accompanied the regiment to France and disembarked with them at Marseilles in April 1916. Owing to a contagious sickness which broke out on the Oriana, the regiment was put into quarantine until May, when they left for Steenwerck, the Brigade Headquarters. A month later, the regiment was moved to the village of Sailly-le-Sac, about two miles behind the front lines. It was here that Nancy, who had been under heavy fire on scores of occasions, became a casualty when the Germans began the heavy bombardments during the Battle of the Somme.

While the SA Brigade had been near Armentieres, a shell had exploded in the transport lines where Nancy had been tethered close to the Quarter Master`s store. In fright she had bolted and broken her left horn against a wall. This horn was permanently out of alignment and started to grow downwards at an angle. However, there was no sick leave for Nancy, just “light duty”. They could not give her kitchen fatigues so she was allowed to roam about the headquarters.

The highlight of Nancy’s distinguished military career and war record happened on 17 February 1918 when she attended her last ceremonial parade. She proudly led four battalions of the South African Brigade to the first Delville Wood service, prancing on her thin little legs. It’s as if she knew that she was the darling of every soldier on parade and of those they were coming to honour.

The parade was not only the last for Nancy but it was also the last for General Lukin in France.

Nancy caught pneumonia during the severe winter of that year and, although devotedly cared for by Bugler Petersen and all the medical personnel of the headquarters, died on November 26. Her death was announced in General Orders – probably the only occasion in military history that this was done. All parades were cancelled. There were only a few of the original members of the regiment still on active service and they were detailed to form the firing party.

Nancy’s head and skin were sent to London to be treated, and then dispatched to Sir William Dalrymple who had it mounted and presented to the regiment. From the wall of the Officers’ Mess at the Transvaal Scottish Regimental Headquarters, she kept a critical eye over the officers. She has since been promoted and is now a member of the War Museum in Johannesburg.

Reference SAMVOA website.  Image copyright – Imperial War Museum

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