Honouring my own unknown warrior
IT’S not a large box, really. About the size of a toaster and made, I think, from pine. I found it in an antique shop in Plymouth, tucked away behind an old spinning wheel, and it cost £15.
I was 15 years old at the time, with holiday money burning a hole in my pocket. I’d planned to spend it on a Janet Jackson album.
On the front of the box is a brass plaque with the name WJ Martin etched on it. Open it up and on the inside lid are two messages. The first, a hasty scribble, reads ‘HMS 3312’. The second is more considered, written in pencil in an ornate hand. ‘Killed’, it says. ‘13/10 1915’.
I don’t know why it meant so much to me, a teenage girl from Scotland in the early 1990s, to own this small piece of World War One. Perhaps it was the immediacy of those words. No pomp, no ceremony, not a whisker of sentimentality. There was something dignified yet desperately sad about it.
I handed my money over, the first I’d earned myself after a stint in a musical production, and took the box home. It’s been with me ever since.
Over the years I’ve wondered about the owner of this box, which I later discovered is called a ditty box and was once standard issue for all members of the Navy for personal belongings.
What did the W stand for? William perhaps, or Walter. An old-fashioned name I guessed, the sort that’s long since fallen out of favour.
I’d wonder, too, what he kept in there. Letters from a sweetheart perhaps? Postcards from home? A shaving kit? Or was he too young to shave?
I worried over why this box, once someone’s most treasured possession and bearing a record of their death, had ended up in an antique shop.
I imagined a family stumbling over it in an attic somewhere, unable to recall anyone in the family with the initials WJ, or a house clearance sale picked over by dealers. How quickly time flies when you are young and dead and forgotten.
I started to hoard my own keepsakes in the box, letters from friends, old photographs and birthday cards. For a few years I even wore the key on a chain around my neck until I gave it to a boy, who handed my heart back not long afterwards but forgot to return the key.
And I would think about this young man, wide-eyed and excited, heading off to a war not even his commanders could explain why he was fighting. Was he frightened at the end? Did he realise his war would be over so quickly?
I’ve never been able to track him down, despite the extensive records now available online. Without his full name it has proved challenging, and HMS 3312 appears to be a dead end.
In records held by the Merchant Navy I found a William J Joseph Martin, a trimmer aged 21 from Liverpool, who crewed a ship called La Negra in 1915, but I can’t find a record of his death. Is it him? I doubt I shall ever know.
AND yet, strangely, it doesn’t matter. Because what I’ve realised, in the two and a half decades since I first acquired WJ Martin’s ditty box, is that whether I know his first name or not, his impact is the same.
Wars are too big to understand for those of us who have never fought in one. Too dangerous, too complicated, and perhaps most frightening of all, too similar. And so instead, we cling on to the individual stories. The ones we make up inside our heads, the ones told to us by our grandparents, or read in history books.
That’s why Anne Frank’s story, among the many millions of those killed in the Holocaust, has become such an emblem. It’s why we worship at the grave of the unknown soldier.
WJ Martin has been dead now for more than a century. He probably lived less than a quarter of that. And yet down the years his story still speaks to me.
And so on Sunday, on the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, I shall think of him, this young man who never got to see the going down of the sun on that momentous day in 1918.
I shall think of the life he never got to live, and the lives of millions of others just like him that were shut off like lights. And I shall remind myself that in this one simple act, they are remembered.