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Uncovering hidden treasure from the First World War

By SILVIA PIKAL

Photo courtesy Glenbow.

On the seventh floor of Glenbow, one of the floors containing the museum’s collections materials, Travis Lutley slips on a pair of archival gloves and picks up a slender cigarette tin. Its exterior is dotted with rust, but it’s in pretty good shape considering it’s been buried in dirt for almost a century.

Lutley is a collections technician in the Military History Department for Glenbow, and he’s very excited about this particular donation.

“I was contacted by a self-described relic hunter in the UK who had come across this object in Europe,” Lutley says.

The relic hunter found it a few years ago — likely somewhere in France — and didn’t keep track of where he found it, since at first glance it was just a rusty cigarette tin.

When he got around to cleaning it in an acid bath, he discovered this was no ordinary relic from the past. He unearthed a stamped inscription: 808887. J.G. PATTISON. 50 BTL. C.E.F.

That might not mean much if you’re not familiar with military history. What the relic hunter knew is this inscription reveals the name of a Canadian soldier — John George Pattison — along with his service number, battalion number and that he was a part of Canada’s overseas infantry forces, the Canadian Expeditionary Force, during the First World War.

A Google search of the soldier’s name alerted him to the fact that Pattison’s Victoria Cross lives at the Glenbow (the Victoria Cross is the highest decoration for bravery possible to receive in Commonwealth countries with only 94 being awarded to Canadians). He then got in touch with Lutley and asked if they wanted the tin.

“That was a really wild thing and totally unexpected,” Lutley says. “Typically we get family members donating material to us that belonged to someone in their family.”

The donor mailed the tin on its way, and after sitting in customs for a few agonizing months, the package was finally in Lutley’s hands.

“When you work in the material culture industry, objects seem to have a lot of power and importance, so when unpacking it for the first time, it really gave me shivers because this was buried for almost 100 years and resurfaced to inform or enliven his story once again.”

JOHN GEORGE PATTISON’S STORY 

According to the book VCs of the First World War: Arras & Messines 1917 by Gerald Gliddon, Pattison was born in Woolwich, England, and came to Canada in 1906 with his family. They were living in Calgary when Pattison enlisted in May 1916 at the age of 40.

He was sent to France, and in April 1917 his battalion was involved in an attack. The Germans had a clear field of fire for their machine guns. Pattison made his way from shell hole to shell hole, ducking fire, until he was able to fling grenades at the German position, killing or wounding several of the crew. He overcame the remaining defenders, and 20 minutes later all the enemy objectives had been taken and the Canadians consolidated the captured line.

Pattison was killed in a shell blast in June 1917 before he could receive his Victoria Cross. His wife, Sophia Pattison, received the medal in Calgary in a public ceremony.

Lutley says it’s unknown if the cigarette tin was on him when he died or if he lost it earlier.

“Part of the significance of this item is the fact there are still material objects buried in the ground that talk about our history and are still being uncovered,” Lutley says. “Are there other soldiers whose personal effects were never recovered? Maybe. It’s an interesting link, and it’s bringing the past back to life.”

Since it was recently acquired the cigarette tin is not ready to be displayed yet, but Glenbow houses Pattison’s Victoria Cross, British War Medal and Victory Medal in the Warriors gallery on the fourth floor.

Liked this story? Read the full feature in the May/June issue of Where Calgary and uncover the secrets behind five museum artifacts.  

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