The Chimp who went to War: This chimpanzee accompanied a skirt-wearing, tattooed commander on an epic World War I mission

By Culture24 Reporter | 17 September 2015

Meet Josephine, the chimpanzee who followed a First World War journey from Twickenham to an Africa lake

A black and white photo of a chimpanzee having her hair cut by World War One Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson
Josephine, the expedition chimp, having her hair attended to© Crown copyright, image courtesy Imperial War Museums
On June 12 1915, the eccentric Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson – wearing his uniform with a skirt as its centrepiece – set off to requisition two gunboats, named Mimi and Toutou, from Twickenham to Lake Tanganyika in East Africa.

A black and white photo of a chimpanzee drinking tea with World War One Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson
The chimpanzee is seen eating with a spoon in this picture. It is unclear whether she partook of tea© Crown copyright, image courtesy Imperial War Museums
After hauling their 16-tonne vehicles from Tilbury Docks via Marseille by rail and ship, the crew arrived in Cape Town two months later, moving on to Northern Rhodesia and Belgian Katanga before using traction engines and oxen to travel 150 miles across wild bush country and mountains.

A black and white photo of a group of people in Africa with World War One Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson
Native meal carriers in Tanganyika, pictured at some point between January and April 1916© Crown copyright, image courtesy The National Archives
The gunboats seized the lake from the German navy, capturing an enemy gunboat and sinking another in December 1915. But the lesser-known tales of the triumph revolve around Commander Spicer-Simson’s unusual charisma, tattooing his arm with curling snakes and choosing a pet chimp, Josephine, to accompany him.

A black and white photo of a vessel being pulled up a hill in Africa during World War One
Mimi being pulled up a plateau© Crown copyright, image courtesy The National Archives
In newly-released photos from the National Archives, the monkey can be seen having her hair tended to and eating alongside soldiers with a spoon. Spicer-Simpson, who is said to have held divine status with natives, left Josephine in South Africa when he returned to Britain in 1917, in the care of a doctor who found her a home in Cape Town Zoo.

A black and white photo of a vessel being pulled up a hill in Africa during World War One
A traction engines used to haul boats by Lake Tanganyika© Crown copyright, image courtesy The National Archives
A community artist will lead sessions at the archives next month, including the chance to create recycled sculptures of the chimp, flamingos and elephants, design a skirt uniform, see more photos and make a giant map of the route Mimi and Toutou took. The epic story, experts say, demonstrates the scale of the First World War.

The story of Commander Spicer-Simson and the two gunboats

  • At the beginning of the war, the Admiralty authorised a scheme to seize control of Lake Tanganyika which was occupied by the German Navy.

  • After rejecting Commander Spicer-Simson’s original request to name the two gunboats Dog and Cat, the Admiralty were content to name them Mimi and Toutou (only later was it discovered that they meant ‘Meow’ and ‘Fido’ in Parisian slang.

  • The gunboats finally arrived at Lake Tanganyika on October 26 1915. In December 1915, the British vessels captured the German gunboat Kingani and sank the Hedwig von Wiessman two months later. The Germans scuttled their other ship, the Graf von Gotzen.

  • The British forces were in command of the lake, safe from a ship-borne counter attack when they began the invasion of German East Africa in May 1916.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums to discover unusual First World War stories in

Riverside Museum, Chester
Exhibition The First World War: Returning Home complements the museum's existing collection of curiosities from the world of medicine, nursing, midwifery and social work. Open to the public on the first Wednesday of the month between 1pm and 4pm.

IWM North, Manchester
Horrible Histories: Blitzed Brits explains why war was woeful for those who stayed at home and how they survived being blitzed by bombs. Step into a 1940s house, brave the Blitz experience, sniff your way through stinky smells and get hands on with intriguing interactives. Until February 1 2016.

China Hall, Stoke-on-Trent
The exhibition Resonate: Remembering the lost Soldiers of North Staffordshire is dominated by a monumental clay head by artist Stephen Dixon, made using a ton of clay sourced from the WWI battlefield sites of Passchendaele. Part of the British Ceramics Biennial, until November 8 2015.
Latest comment: >Make a comment
  • Back to top
  • | Print this article
  • | Email this article
  • | Bookmark and Share
    Back to article
    Your comment:
    DISCLAIMER: Reader comments posted at are the opinion of the comment writer, not Culture24. Culture24 reserves the right to withdraw or withhold from publication any comments that are deemed to be hearsay or potentially libellous, or make false or unsubstantiated allegations or are deemed to be spam or unrelated to the article at which they are posted.