Mystery box, a window to the past
For The Record
Webster’s dictionary defines destiny as “an inevitable course of events.” Have you ever had the feeling that you are the person of the hour? Is there some unknown force selecting you for a particular purpose?
History has always been my passion. In junior high, during class library sessions, I scanned through books that dealt with everything from Indians to world history. I never cared much for English or poems but one day while reading a book on the First World War, I came across the poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae. The poem’s sad, beautiful words impressed me so much that later I found myself inexplicably quoting the lines during quiet moments. I had no explanation as to why I liked the poem so much and in my youthful naivety didn’t really realize the importance of it. Only time would allow me to discover the secrets the poem held.
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Twenty-two years would pass before I attended a fateful antique auction one Tuesday night. It was at that time I noticed a dilapidated box sitting on a table waiting for its turn at the gavel. An old Bible within it attracted me. I was worried it would go for a price I was unable to pay. The hour was late, yet I waited anxiously to finally hear the words, “What am I bid on the box of contents?”
Nervously, I raised my hand and shouted, “$5.” “Sold” was the immediate response.
Later, I carefully explored the contents: A small, black, English Bible dated 1892, Stacks of old photographs held together by rubber bands, Kodak negative albums, a leather collar box, a red visitor’s log, some old British Legion calendar books and two paper-mache bowls. The items were mysterious and intriguing, yet for some reason, seemed familiar.
There were some 360 photographs in the box, with two names, John and Dorothy scrawled across a yellowed envelope containing pictures of a young couple. An older woman stared out from another photograph, the reverse of which was inscribed with the name, Harriett, and a date, 1909. Most of the photographs were of a military nature, taken in a desert setting. Almost all had writing on the back and two had dates of 1915 and ‘16. A gray folder contained a larger studio photograph of the same man in the yellowed envelope, in a soldier’s uniform, in Cairo. The face was handsome but there was a sadness that accompanied the opening of the folder. I was suddenly shrouded with an unexplainable feeling, a sense of regret and a certainty that all the items within the box belonged with someone else in another place … somewhere far away!
The soldier and the younger woman seemed to belong together.
The older woman, Harriett, could have been the mother of either one. But why would someone willingly give up a priceless piece of family history? I wondered about the fate of the people in the photographs, but at the time there was no internet or possibility of finding out more. I reluctantly put the box away on a shelf. It stayed there for 13 years!
I never forgot about the box during that time. Occasionally, as I passed it, I found myself looking back as if I had forgotten something. In 1999, I couldn’t stand it any longer! I took the box down and set the contents on the table before me and began searching for any clue that would lead me to the relatives of the soldier and his family.
Inside the flap of the Kodak folders, which held the negatives of all the military photographs, there was a written note: J.F. Aitken, 6th Lancashire Fusiliers, E.E.F. #4 Castle Street, Bakewell, Derbyshire.
The collar supports in the leather box were inscribed with the same designation. The red Visitor’s book contained dates from 1906 to 1923 and included the names Harriet and Dorothy Aitken. With that information as a starting point, I was able to find out that the soldier was John Francis Aitken and that he had served with the 6th Lancashire Fusiliers in Egypt during World War I. The E.E.F. stood for the Egyptian Expeditionary Force of the British Army, which was in Egypt protecting the Suez Canal from the Turks. The “Visitor’s Book” was filled with adoring comments from person’s staying at Mrs. Aitkin’s boarding house on Castle Street, Bakewell, England.
John was a romantic. His legacy of pictures detailed his travels and involvement in war. Armed with a rifle and a camera, John recorded his love of humanity, documenting forever his experiences of hardship and danger among the people of a land that dates back to the most ancient of times. One of John’s pictures shows a group of camels being led across the desert at evening. On the back he wrote: “Night and day the camel plods his silent way.”
John’s unit was sent to Gallipoli in 1915. On the way they found a wandering Black goat on the island of Lemnos and named it Nanny. The Fusiliers made it their battalion mascot. It was wounded twice on Gallipoli but survived. On Valentines’ Day, 1916, back in Egypt the unit rescued a small mongrel dog from the rubble of a blown out building and named it Val. The dog joined Nanny as the unit’s mascots.
While exploring leads from the materials in the box, I happened to meet a man named Leonard Higgins, visiting from Manchester, England. I gave him several pictures and some notes and he agreed to search when he returned to his homeland. Manchester just happened to be near Bakewell. I received a reply after several weeks and it included some names of people living near the, still standing, house at #4 Castle Street. Dr.Trevor Brighton, head of the Bakewell Historical Society was one of them. I wrote Trevor and received a letter back giving names of distant relatives of Harriett, whose maiden name was Nelson.
The Nelson family provided me with a short history of the Aitkens:
In the 1880s, Harriet Nelson was a tour guide for Haddon Hall, a large Manor House in Bakewell. A gentleman planter, James Frederick Aitken, from Jonestown, Mississippi was touring the Manor and met and fell in love with Harriet. The couple married in 1890 and moved to Avondale, Ala., USA. They had two children, John Francis born in 1891 and Dorothy, born in 1895. Harriet’s husband died in 1896 and the family moved back to England. The children finished school in England and John joined the British army in 1915 and was later shipped to Egypt where he took all the pictures. In 1917 he was sent to the Western Front through France and Belgium and eventually wound up in Ypres, Belgium. There, the Fusiliers were involved in heavy fighting.
Around the same time that I was corresponding with Dr. Brighton, I discovered a British Government website called, The Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I entered John’s name and unit and waited anxiously for a reply. My heart sank as I read the words:
In Memory Of:
Second Lieutenant John Francis Aitken
1st/6th Batallion, Lancashire Fusiliers
Who died aged 26 on Thursday, 6th Sept. 1917
The only son of Harriet Ann and the late James Frederick Aitken, of Bakewell, Derbyshire.
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How disappointing it was! John died before he ever really had a chance to live. John was buried outside Ypres in Brandhoek, New Military Cemetery No. 3, along with about a thousand other soldiers killed around the same time. He lies in an area that was farmland before the war, an area known for the poppies that bloom profusely when the ground is disturbed as it was from the constant bombardment of artillery shells and afterwards from the burial plots dug for the many brave men who died in action. John’s final resting place is in a region called Flanders fields, the same place John McCrae wrote about in the poem I remember.
John’s mother, Harriet, grieved much in the years that followed. She kept John’s possessions closed in a room at the house on Castle Street. They stayed there until both Harriet and Dorothy died, over 60 years. Friends and neighbors cleared out the house and eventually the soldiers things were sold to an auction company who shipped them to America, where I bought them.
The search continues for John’s relatives with the hope that in time the possessions can be turned over to a selected representative of the Aitken family.
With the return of John’s belongings, a long journey will have ended. Only then will John’s spirit forever rest. The items have been entrusted but for a while until a soldier’s story can be told and remembered so that a poem written about the land and times of World War I can give meaning to one separate life, that of a man who loved many things but loved people more than life itself. John was not alone in his sacrifice, there were many who died before and after him, the bravest of men, like those of the 6th Lancashire Fusiliers, who went forward, prepared to die, led into battle by a black goat called Nanny and a little mongrel dog named Val.
In Flanders Fields
By John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.