The Otago old boy who carried his violin through the war

The Otago old boy who carried his violin through the war

Tonight's Great War story features a member of the Otago regiment who survived World War I and became a world-class mathematician.

Alexander Aitken also managed to keep his violin with him throughout the war -- it's now on display at his old school, Otago Boys' in Dunedin.

Otago Boys' High school was where Mr Aitken first found fame. He was the school dux in 1912 and a champion athlete.

The centrepiece in today's Anzac assembly is the violin -- it was the prize in a raffle on the boat to Egypt in 1915.

Mr Aitken was 20 when he volunteered and was one of the 17,000 New Zealanders to serve at Gallipoli.

Years later he wrote a moving account of his war.

"More than once I felt like throwing the violin away, down the streambed, but members of the section took turns with me in carrying it up the slope," wrote Mr Aitken.

"It is a strange phase of life to remember lying in all-weather out of doors, a fiddle case beside me, in a kind of premature grave."

Before Mr Aitken left that unhappy battleground in December 1915, he and the remaining troops were thinking of their lost friends, of home and Christmas.

"Each night we had a muted concert in the largest dugout," he wrote.

"My E-strong hand gone, there was no room for the sweep of the bow arm. But Christmas was near."

The older violin that survived Gallipoli and the Somme is now retired from active service.

"His violin became, not just for Aitken but for his battalion-mates, an escape from the awful sights and at times the boredom of war," says Otago Boys' rector Richard Hall.

It was on the Western Front on the Somme in September 1916 that Mr Aitken was hit. Crawling to safety past his dead comrades, a badly wounded Mr Aitken confronted all the senseless horror of war.

When he recovered, he returned to New Zealand -- to his surprise, so had his violin.

The person responsible was friend, teacher and fellow Otago infantryman Cuthbert Parr. His granddaughter is Alison Parr, journalist and oral historian.

"I think it's wonderful that the violin is at Otago Boys' High," she says. "It's not about war; it's about music, the spirit and it's a fantastic thing it survived all that history."