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Gallipoli to the Somme by Alexander Aitken


Gallipoli to the Somme is a fascinating account of World War I, a personal account of one soldier’s experience. Alexander Aitken might have been an ordinary soldier, but he had an extraordinary mind. A maths genius, he could multiply nine-digit numbers in his head. He took a violin with him to Gallipoli and practiced Bach on the Western Front. His powers of memory were astonishing. He knew Paradise Lost and Aeneid by heart, and when a vital roll-book was lost with the dead, he was able to dictate the full name, regimental number, next of kin and addresses for every member of his former platoon – a total of 56 men. He remembered everything that he saw – so his great gift of memory was also a terrible curse, as he could never forget the horrors of what he had experienced.


This is an incredibly perceptive memoir of World War I, an account that is restrained while having a photographic quality to the writing. Alexander first started working on the book in 1917 when he was a wounded out-patient in Dunedin Hospital. He regularly reworked the manuscript when he was affected by the trauma of war, and eventually published in 1963, and recognised as an important literary memoir of note. It’s a contemporary account by a young soldier, who miraculously survived the carnage.


Now republished after decades of being out of print, editor Alex Calder has included an insightful introduction, and the new edition has photographs, letters and maps. I particularly liked the image of Alexander’s violin and case, that eventually came back to him in New Zealand.


Reviewer: Karen McMillan

Auckland University Press, RRP $39.99

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