The heat was sweltering that night in the hills near Coriano, Italy. It was Sept. 15, 1944, and the shelling on the Gothic Line was heavy and unrelenting. Civilians in fear for their lives took shelter wherever they could, some hiding in stacks of hay or in abandoned buildings. Farm animals however, who had once grazed in pastures beneath cool shade trees, were completely vulnerable to the battle that raged around them. Dead livestock littered the countryside.
The 8th Princess Louise’s (New Brunswick) Hussars, for the most part farm boys from southern New Brunswick, were on the front lines, and while amid the shelling they heard the scream of a wounded animal. When the firestorm briefly subsided, they quickly investigated and came upon a young filly that had been struck by shrapnel. The baby, who had been born just two or three months before, stood trembling in fear and bleeding from leg and belly wounds. The mare lay dead on the ground beside her, a well-worn path beaten by the foal around her fallen mother told of the filly’s agony as hunger, thirst and pain urged her on. The Canadian soldiers corralled the frightened and injured baby and took her for medical attention.
Lance Sergeant Gerald Kelly of the Hussars was the medic on the scene during that fierce battle. He recalls that day. “Dead cattle were lying upside down, bloated and swollen–killed by the shelling and things like that. Houses were broken, mostly I think from our own fire because there might be an enemy in it,” he says, recounting the Coriano experience. “It was pretty messy. Some of the boys found the filly, our mechanics and fitters. I was the medic they brought it to at the regimental aid post. The medical officer was Dr. Tom Dalrymple from Vancouver, a very good man too. The colt was not seriously wounded or anything. There was some bad scratches on the leg and the belly as I recall. It was very hot and there were a lot of flies in that country and infection is what you’ve got to really worry about.
“So we cleaned it up pretty good, as best we could. It was pretty hard to put a dressing on a horse’s belly you know–to stick it on, but we did drop a bandage around it to hold the dressing on there at the time. We used surgical powder.”
No doubt the filly brought the family farm back into sharper focus, but the 8th Princess Louise’s (N.B.) Hussars were also once a cavalry unit and horses were very much a part of their proud history. During WW II, it formed part of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division.
The regiment actually dates back to 1775 when Colonel John Saunders formed Saunders’ Horse to fight American colonists. At the conclusion of those hostilities, Americans by the thousands–who wished to remain loyal to the British crown–fled to New Brunswick, settling for the most part in the southern part. Seven troops of cavalry were organized among those Loyalist settlers and were eventually incorporated into the regiment on April 4, 1848.
Kelly’s memories of the Italian Campaign are still vivid, as is his recollection of how the filly that eventually became the regiment’s mascot came into Canadian hands. “Most things I would like to forget about that area,” he admits. “Our doctor was hell bent for being up forward all the time. There have been a lot of stories written about this, there was one last year that said some of the Hussars picked up the wounded filly and took it back to base where it received medical attention. Now our regimental aid post was not back at any base. We were as far forward as you could possibly get. We were ahead of the artillery, they were firing over our heads and behind us and I think only one squadron of the Hussars had gone beyond us and they lost three tanks and a bunch of men. Most any place where we were in action against the enemy, our doctor was very insistent that we be right up there, he figured that was the place to be, and I guess it was. I don’t think we even had a base for Pete’s sake.”
Nevertheless, a horse was just about the last thing Kelly expected to see at the regimental aid post. That night was different. “I was more or less surprised to see them coming with the filly…. We were using a small stolen house as I remember…. It was an area where there was a lot of shelling on both sides…. We had moved into that area maybe two or three days before that. We pushed the Germans back so it was possibly shelling from the Germans that killed it, but it could have been the other way around.”
Suddenly, amid the devastation, there was a special purpose, a defenceless animal that needed human intervention to survive. It became a mission, albeit a covert one. The little horse had her wounds cleaned, disinfected and bandaged. Daily medical followup was necessary to change dressings and watch for signs of infection, but she also had to be cared for. “It was up to the boys,” explains Kelly. “They had more time than we did. Mechanics and fitters–they were not fighting men, they had vehicles, trucks and they were very essential. They kept our vehicles going and things.”
It wasn’t long before the filly was given the very special name of Princess Louise by her human protectors. No higher honour could have been placed upon the animal by the Hussars.
In 1882, Princess Louise, who was the consort of the Governor General of Canada (the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria) consented to honour the regiment with her name. It was then that the regiment became known as the 8th Princess Louise’s New Brunswick regiment of yeoman cavalry.
They were proud fighting men, and Kelly recalls the tension of that fierce battle that had claimed the filly’s mother. “We were stalled in that area for a few days,” he says. “It was some very determined enemy over the ridge that wouldn’t let us be there you see. Two, three, four days until they arranged an attack on the enemy and as we went ahead we finally got Coriano Ridge–that was just a couple of miles in from the Adriatic coast. The 1st Cdn. Division was fighting right along the coast. We were just a little bit further inland and then we come out for regrouping or what not, we come back a little ways.”
It was around that time that the orphaned filly suddenly reappeared. “I never expected to see it again naturally,” explains Kelly. “One of the boys led this horse back to show me and it was fine then, it was good. I took a snapshot of it. In the meantime the boys had already somehow, and I don’t know how they did this–they made a little thing (banner) to go over its back and it had Princess Louise on it.”
The filly had found a home–and plenty of tender loving care from the 8th Canadian Hussars (Princess Louise’s), as the regiment was renamed in 1957, and whose motto is: Regi Patriaeque Fidelis (Faithful to King and Country). She marched at the head of parades and was saluted by soldiers who had quickly grown to love her as she gratefully slipped into her royal role, and in the process upheld the proud military tradition of the fighting Hussars.
Ever humble however, Kelly refuses to take any credit for the foal becoming a celebrated mascot. “I didn’t have nothing to do with it,” he says of the decision to adopt the horse. “Our colonel, especially the second in command of the regiment was Major Bob Ross at the time. He was originally from Hampton, N.B. In the old days the Hussars was a cavalry–a horse regiment and this was just the thing. They didn’t have a horse so he helped every way he could for them to hide this thing and put it in trucks. Every time we moved, they hid it.”
She travelled on the QT, safe in a concealed stall that had been built in a three-ton truck as the regiment made its way through France and Belgium and into Holland.
And did Kelly ever think much about the horse he helped treat becoming famous one day? “Not really, because things were different then. It was a war and we was just happy to survive and get on with the thing and finally get back home, that was all, but we was glad that we was able to help it out….”
At the conclusion of WW II, she was shipped to New York from Holland aboard the Dutch liner Leerdam. From New York she promptly made her way by train to Saint John. “The regiment stayed in Holland for quite a long while after the war waiting for transportation,” says Kelly. “A good part of Canada was over there fighting, and there weren’t enough ships to bring them home.”
She arrived in Saint John on March 27, 1946, amid thunderous cheers from curious onlookers. Not long after that she was reunited with the men who had not only saved her life, but had protected her during the balance of the war.
The new mascot was welcomed by a guard of honour in Saint John, complete with a band, and a special greeting from Brigadier D.R. Agnew, the district officer of military district 7, Mayor J.D. McKenna and a parade where she marched with full regalia amid the 8th Hussars badges and flashes, 5th Cdn. Armd. Div. with maroon patch and her campaign medals: The 19391945 Star, The Italy Star, The France and Germany Star, Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and three Wound Stripes.
From there she was taken to the nearby prestigious bedroom community of Rothesay where classes were interrupted as schoolchildren lined the roadways in a tumultuous greeting.
Onward she was transported to Hampton and more accolades on the steps of the King’s County Court House. There she became a naturalized Canadian and made a free woman of King’s County and the Community of Hampton. She was given the “God given right to trample and eat from any and all vegetable gardens at will, or even from the supplies at Sharp’s Feed Store.”
She also became a full-fledged member of Hampton Branch of The Royal Canadian Legion–a front hoof print serving as her signature on the application form.
Her fame endured, and she was in great demand as tributes continued to pour in. She participated in regimental, church, anniversary and Remembrance Day parades throughout southern New Brunswick. Most special occasions saw her at the top of the invitation list and she was a regular attendee at militia summer camps.
One highlight on her itinerary was a renewed acquaintance with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery at Fredericton, N.B., during a parade and inspection, and Governor General Alexander, previously Field Marshal Alexander was also a familiar face. During the latter ceremony, she was quickly forgiven when she stole and ate the flowers that were to be presented to Lady Alexander.
She met the Duchess of Kent and Princess Alexandra, Governor General Vincent Massey and General “Fighting Frank” Worthington, the father of the Royal Canadian Armoured Corp, who at the end of inspection, leaped onto the horse’s back in the old cavalry tradition and rode off parade square.
The event was being broadcast live on radio and when the announcer informed his rapt audience that the general was riding off the parade on the back of Princess Louise, listeners were shocked. They were just as quickly set straight.
Princess Louise went on to have three foals, Princess Louise II and two sons, Prince and Hussar. The Italian foal orphaned on the battlefield enjoyed a long, happy and celebrated life. In 1969, the militia regiment threw her a 25th birthday party, complete with cake at O’Connell Park in Sussex, N.B., and the freedom of that town was also bestowed upon her.
Princess Louise I, the original regimental mascot of the 8th Hussars, died in 1973 in her 30th year, and is buried near the cenotaph in Hampton. Her daughter joined her in 1981. Princess Louise I’s last horseshoes are on display in Hampton Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. There is also a model of her at the 8th Canadian Hussars (Princess Louise’s) museum at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick.
Retired Lance Sergeant Gerald Kelly embraces his special connection with the Hussar’s mascot, and has journals, newspaper clippings and photographs of the orphaned filly who not only stole the show–but made life on the front lines perhaps a little more bearable for the fighting men of the 8th Hussars.
Her impact on the morale during the darkest days of WW II will never be forgotten. In the midst of devastation, there was innocence and hope. Kelly smiles and nods his head slowly. “Yes,” he agrees about the boost it gave the Canadian men, “even though we had to steal a horse to do it.”