The music of Mars

A violin reprises the ANZAC experience of war.

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Newly arrived at the Gallipoli Peninsula in late November 1915, Private Alexander Aitken of the 10th (North Otago) Company soon found himself with his back to Suvla Bay, clambering in the half light of dawn up steep, crumbling slopes near Chunuk Bair.

“More that once I felt like throwing the violin away down the stream-bed,” Aitken later confessed. Yes, he had brought along a violin. He was eventually relieved of the unlikely load when others in his section took turns carrying the instrument to higher ground.

“It is a strange phase of life to remember, lying in all weathers out of doors, a fiddle-case beside me, in a kind of premature grave among the prickly ilex,” he noted in his memoir of the campaign, Gallipoli to the Somme.

Aitken had been gifted the violin by a troopship cabin-mate who had won it in a raffle. “Mediocre in tone and cheap” though it was, Aitken grew fond of it, indelibly recording his journey to war on the baize lining of its case: Indian Ocean, Aden, Suez, Cairo (Zeitoun), Alexandria…  He managed to inveigle the violin, which soon became something of a platoon mascot, through a series of strict kit inspections, and entertained others with what became his signature tune—a transcription of Dvořák’s Humoresque.

Working a violin at the front line called for improvisation—a broken E-string was replaced by strands of a field-telephone wire—and compromise in the dugout, where “there was no room for the sweep of the bow-arm”. His nightly concerts were, by necessity, muted.

When Aitken and the rest of the ANZACs were evacuated from Gallipoli, he thought the instrument lost to the Turks, but the two were reunited thanks to a kindly major.

“Shove it in with my stuff,” the major had told his batman. “Some fellows get attached to these things.”

Aitken went on to fight in France, at one stage leaving the violin in the care of a hospice sister, “since to play it in the open was inviting trouble and to play it in the confined space of the dug-out was impossible”. Wounded at the Somme and invalided out, he never expected to see it again. But 18 months later, having hitched rides with Company field kitchens, and after passing through a chain of willing hands, it once more found him—this time in New Zealand—its case by now heavily inscribed.

After the war, Aitken became an eminent mathematician. He had an immense talent for mental calculation and memorisation—he could recite π to 1000 decimal places, among other feats. During World War II, he worked on decrypting ENIGMA code.

Aitken gifted the violin to his old school, Otago Boys’ High, on its 90th anniversary, where it stands to this day, proudly displayed behind glass. “It will outlive me,” he wrote, “but it will be a reminder to all who see it, of the service and sacrifice of New Zealanders in the First World War.”

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