surrounded by gunfire, how much would music mean to you?
Alexander Aitken was a bright student with a photographic memory. After the war he went on to do amazing things in mathematics and statistics, but to the soldiers on the shores of Gallipoli, he was known for something else.
Alec was gifted the violin by a friend who had won it in a raffle on board the ship to Egypt. He played it almost every night in the trenches, bringing the power of music to the soldiers who were surrounded by the sadness of war. When his E string broke he made a new string out of field telephone wire. When Christmas came along, his concerts included ‘The First Noel’ - accompanied by a choir of soldiers.
It was hard work for Alec trudging through mud, carrying his heavy soldiers’ pack as well as his violin case. Luckily, he had friends who loved the music so much, they took turns with the violin, making sure it was always safe.
One night during combat, Alec was injured and sent to hospital. When he recovered and was sent back home to New Zealand, he thought the violin was lost forever, but it followed him home. The violin is still on display at Otago Boys’ High School, a reminder that the even smallest things, like a silent concert, can make the biggest difference.
A trench wire violin string
The Aitken Violin
Post war portrait of Alexander
Aitken’s music manuscripts
You have been given a piece of trench wire used by Alexander (Alec) to replace his violin's broken E String at Gallipoli. You are now tasked with discovering more of the story behind Alexander Craig Aitken. How much of his story can you piece together? The suggestions below will help you on your research journey. The When We Search Fact Sheet will also be a helpful tool in helping you discover the pieces of Alexander's puzzle.
Find alexander's service records.
You're in luck. Alexander served in the New Zealand Army so his records can be found online at the Auckland War Memorial Museum Cenotaph. This is your most important search. Collect as much information as you can. Once you've found Alexander's Serial Number move to Archway and search for his service documents there. Be careful there is more than one Alex Aitken.
Alexander Aitken was famous for having an incredible, perhaps even photographic, memory. He was called the "greatest lightning calculator" and he could recite mathematical structures to how many decimal places? Use Papers Past to search for information about Alexander Aitken's phenomenal memory. Hint (search for Dr A C Aitken). What claims can you find about his memory?
WHAT WAS THE JOURNEY OF THE VIOLIN?
Alexander won his violin in a raffle on the troopship to Egypt. What can you discover about the violin and it's journey after that? Musical instruments were banned at the front but Alexander hid the instrument and took it with him. What sites did Alexander play it at during the War? What were the two most popular tunes that his fellow soldiers requested? Find these tunes on YouTube and listen to them. Where is the violin now?
Uncover more pieces of Alexander's story.
investigate alexander's mathematical talents
Alexander Aitken was an extraordinarily talented mathematician and he has been described as the "greatest mental calculator for which there is any reliable record". Create a timeline of his academic and mathematical career after the war - what did he do? Where did he go?
what has the violin inspired?
Many people have been inspired by the life of Alexander Aitken and the story of his violin. Compile a list of the different ways the story of the violin (and the story of Alexander) has been told. You may want to use Alexander's Pinterest Board to get started.
A trench-wire violin string is connected with the story of Alexander Craig (Alec) Aitken who attended Albany Street School and Otago Boys' High School. The original violin is held by Otago Boys' High School Museum. This story is told with the permission of Bev Abernethy, on behalf of the Aitken Family.
Find documents connected with the life of Alexander Craig Aitken here
Aitken spent his entire career at Edinburgh University
Otago Boy's High School
The Walking with an Anzac Team found the first clue in Alex's story when they visited Otago Boy's High School and discovered that there were missing brass panels. After some significant searching of the school the history teachers uncovered the enormous brass plaques in between walls in the school entrance.
Further research on the same platforms you have used today allowed us to discover Alexander's Story.