Fate stepped in for a very special family reuniion

John Aitken displays the medals of his great uncle WJ Aitken  medals he will give to the family he never knew he had. Picture: Michael Gillen
John Aitken displays the medals of his great uncle WJ Aitken  medals he will give to the family he never knew he had. Picture: Michael Gillen

Fate plays a part in all our lives.

For John Aitken (63), of Dickburn Road, Bonnybridge, fate actually changed his life when he travelled across the water to France to commemorate the death of his great uncle.

And if he had been holding his glengarry cap in his other hand on that fateful day at Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme earlier this month he might not have even met the family he did not realise he had.

John, a retired policeman, said: “I’ve been going to Thiepval for the last two years. My great uncle William Aitken died in the battle on July 17, 1916 when he was serving with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.”

WJ Aitken’s body was never found but his name is on the memorial at Thiepval, one of the 72,246 missing British Empire servicemen who died in the battles of the Somme during the First World War.

John actually had his DNA placed on the database at the memorial to ease identification in case any remains of his great uncle were ever found.

He said: “This year we decided to go over to commemorate his death on July 17 and lay a wreath at his name at Thiepval and a cross with his name on it.”

Accompanied by wife Jacqueline and her sister, John set about doing what he had done for the last two years, heading for the memorial to lay his wreath on the Sunday – 100 years to the day his great uncle was reported missing in action.

“My wife took her sister to the visitor centre,” said John. “I went up to the memorial to lay the wreathe and my cross – I was wearing my Argylls jacket and carrying my glengarry cap.

“This man, who was with a group of older people who were just leaving, came up to look at the glengarry I was carrying. He said, ‘Is that an Argyll badge? We’re here to commemorate an Argyll soldier’.”

From that point on John got to talking with the man and it eventually became clear they were both in France to remember WJ Aitken.

John said: “He looked at me like he couldn’t believe it. It turns out he was Paul Finney and his dad Richard was my cousin. William Aitken was also his great uncle.”

The Finneys, Richard (66), from Lincolnshire, and his brother Reg (60), from Stoke-on-Trent, were in France with their family for exactly the same reason John was.

“They had to rush away, but we all wanted to ask each other so many questions. It was a bit frenetic, but we got each other’s contact details. This all happened in the space of five minutes – I had found family I didn’t know I had.

“If there was ever going to be one day when we would all be at the memorial it would have been that day, but we still could have missed each other. If I had been carrying the glengarry in my other hand Paul would not have seen it and come up to me.

“I’ve been on the phone with them almost every day since I came back. Through them I also found out about other family in Australia I never knew I had either.”

John plans to travel down to see Richard and his family and he will be carrying a very special gift.

“I’m going to give them William Aitken’s medals and his scrolls. I’m an only child and my wife and I didn’t have any children so I thought I was the end of the line. I knew all my mother’s side of the family, but I never knew much about my father’s side.

“Now I can give Richard the medals and he can pass them onto Paul who can pass them on to his children.”