Hon­our­ing my own un­known war­rior

Scottish Daily Mail - - News -

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.

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