Alexander Aitken Great War Story

Alexander Aitken was to become a distinguished professor of mathematics. A master of mental arithmetic, he specialised in performing difficult calculations. This skill would save his life on the Somme during the First World War. Badly wounded and trapped in no-man’s-land, he noticed a regular pattern in the German shelling and worked out when it would hit the area he was lying in. The violin he carried at Gallipoli and on the Western Front is now a treasured artefact at Otago Boys’ High School.

Escape from no-man's-land

Alexander Aitken was born in Dunedin on 1 April 1895. He attended Otago Boys' High School and became Head Boy. He won a scholarship to the University of Otago, where he studied languages and mathematics.

In April 1915, Aitken enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF). He left New Zealand for Egypt in August with the 6th Reinforcements. After serving with the Otago Battalion in the later stages of the Gallipoli campaign, he sailed for France with the 1st Battalion of the Otago Regiment.

Badly wounded on the Somme during the Battle of Morval (25-27 September 1916), Aitken managed to drag himself back through no-man’s-land to safety:

Bullets still hissed above my shell-hole, a raised hand would have been perforated at once; it was out of the question to think of crawling back. I saw the head and shoulders, and once or twice the hands also, of a field telephonist running forward from shell-hole to shell-hole and unrolling his wire; he was still unwounded as he drew level with my crater and passed behind me towards the front, but I fear he could not long have remained so.

Soon afterwards I was myself forced to move, by noticing amid the uproar a regularity, a periodicity, in a particular type of explosion. I watched carefully, and saw that shells from a 5.9 or 4.1 howitzer were coming closer every two minutes, apparently in a straight line. When first seen, their burst seemed close to the part of Goose Alley, perhaps 500 yards back, where we had emerged and strung out. I visualized the German gunners lowering their howitzers by a fraction of angle each time; I reckoned that in about ten minutes one of these shells would fall near my crater, possibly on it. Being blown to pieces or killed by blast seemed worse than the machine-guns. Using what cover I could, I crawled from my shell-hole over to our original right, now my left, out of line of fire. This brought me in a few minutes to the Factory Corner road again, at a point some 200 yards to the original right of Goose Alley, which I could trace by its thrown-up earth at that distance down the road…. The road here and the ground to either side were strewn with bodies, some motionless, some not. Cries and groans, prayers, imprecations, reached me…. Yet there is something to be confessed. Under the strictest eye of truth, my sympathy for these men at that moment was abstract almost to vanishing-point. I deduced their pain, I know I should feel it as grievous beyond measure; but I was still wholly mathematical, absorbed in the one problem, whether pairs of consecutive explosions of those howitzer shells showed the slightest difference in direction. It seemed to me that they did. Soon two successive bursts straddled the road. I could not raise my head to look, but judged that the later one must have landed very close to the shell-hole I had first occupied….


About 4 p.m. the sky clouded over and drizzle fell. I angled for a German waterproof sheet a yard away, and this, though riddled with bullet-holes, gave me some shelter…. There was nothing for it but to wait until dark, when, if machine-gun fire should die down, I might hope to crawl back overland to somewhere near the starting-point of our attack, where the trench would be occupied by the 10th Company and would be in better repair. The distance would be about 500 yards…


About 8 p.m. the rain had stopped, the sky had cleared; in the dusk I could just distinguish our observation-balloons. The stars shone in a moonless night, the Great Bear swinging low with the Pole Star above. I turned my back on them, fixed south by other constellations and began the long crawl, leaving behind the water-bottle but hanging Fitt’s binoculars (which I later returned to him in 1st London General Hospital, Camberwell) round my neck.


It was thus that I ended my active service, so slight, unimportant, and uneventful compared with that of hundreds of thousands of others who went through such things over and over again, who saw three or four years where I had seen less than one. From shell-hole to shell-hole I side-crawled on left elbow and knee; perhaps taking three to four hours – though I had ceased to consult the luminous wrist-watch, now daubed with mud. Many times I was tempted to curl up and wait for the stretcher-bearers, but I crawled the few yards farther, rested, and crawled again. The accurate memory that I have retained of my active service flags and blurs a little here, but at length I saw outlined, in black against the rain-washed night sky, the figures of two men on a mound, digging. I recognized them, Alf Ellis of my old section and Lou Mylchreest, a Manxman, also of the 10th Company, which had evidently come up from supplies to hold the line….


An indefinite time later, after midnight, I came to and found myself propped up on a ledge cut in the side of the trench, no longer troubling to identify the constellations above; they had served their turn. My mind was at rest; the long responsibility had ended.[1]

After three months in a military hospital in London, Aitken returned to New Zealand in January 1917. The following year he resumed his university studies, eventually heading to Scotland and becoming Professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. A master of mental arithmetic, he specialised in algebra, numerical analysis and statistics. He was also a very talented musician, and the violin he carried throughout the First World War is now a treasured artefact at Otago Boys' High School.

His war experiences, which haunted him for the rest of his life, directly or indirectly inspired two powerful books: Gallipoli to the Somme (1963) and To catch the spirit (published posthumously in 1995).

Primary Sources

Further Information


Notes

[1] Alexander Aitken, Gallipoli to the Somme, 1963, pp. 170-3

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