Alexander Aitken was born at Dunedin on 1 April 1895, and attended Otago Boys' High School. He became Head Boy and won a scholarship to Otago University, where he studied languages and mathematics.
In April 1915, Aitken enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He left New Zealand for Egypt in August that year, and served with the Otago Battalion in the later stages of the Gallipoli campaign. He then sailed for France with the First Battalion, the Otago Regiment.
Badly wounded near Goose Alley, close to Flers, Aitken had to survive being left out in no-man’s-land. Taking shelter in a crater, he contemplated his survival.
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.
Aitken was soon forced to move from the safety of the bomb crater and find his way back to his own lines.
I watched carefully, and saw that shells from a 5.9 or a 4.1 howitzer were coming closer every two minutes, apparently in a straight line.
I visualised 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.
Narrowly avoiding the shellfire creeping towards him, Aitken collected himself.
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…
Luckily for Aitken, the rain stopped and the sky cleared. He recognised some constellations and used the stars to guide him southwards. Mustering all of his remaining strength, he continued to crawl back to his lines.
At length I saw outlined, in black against the rain-washed night sky, the figures of two men on a mound, digging. I recognised 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.
I called ‘Alf!’ Instantly the figures vanished. Three or four minutes passed, and then I felt a prod in the rear with a bayonet, a foot pressed in the hollow of my back and ‘Who’s this? Speak!’
‘Your old corporal Alf,’ I said; ‘steady with that bayonet.’
They bent down, recognised me, and returned to the trench for a stretcher; but all the stretchers must have been in use. Here the picture fades still more, but since the next thing I remembered is the earthy parapet, I had evidently crawled the last fifteen yards.
Aitken spent three months in a military hospital in London, before returning to New Zealand in January 1917.
The following year he returned to his university studies, then headed to Scotland where he became Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh University.
Left with physical and mental scars, he went on to write one of New Zealand’s best First World War memoirs, Gallipoli to the Somme, published in 1963.
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 in Dunedin.