Museum hunts WWI soldier's family after discovering 'time capsule' suitcase


A suitcase that was left to gather dust for the best part of a century has been opened.

Mick Ward served on the Western Front and returned to Australia after being wounded in battle. But much of the WWI veteran's life beyond the trenches remains a mystery.

Now, the discovery of a discarded suitcase crammed with his war memorabilia has sparked a hunt for any of his living relatives.

It had been left to gather dust for the best part of a century, but when Melbourne Museum curator Deb Tout-Smith unlocked a humble suitcase, she soon realised she had stumbled on a fascinating time capsule of Mick Ward's life.

"When I first saw this wonderful little suitcase I thought it might be interesting. When I opened it up and saw how much material was in there it was a very exciting moment," Ms Tout-Smith told SBS News.

"It immediately struck me as a time capsule of a WWI veteran's life. Something that hadn't perhaps been touched for 50 years. There turned out to be over 107 items in there ... letters, diaries, even his medals, photographs."

Some of the suitcases' contents.
Some of the suitcases' contents.

And an eclectic array of mementos collected by the Great War veteran including an army-issue torch, cuff-links, half-smoked cigarettes, an epaulet hacked from a German soldier's uniform and a meticulously-kept diary.

"He talks about the Germans strafing them and giving them grief and that kind of thing and not unusually for a diary of this sort he almost cheerfully and very matter-of-factly describing the challenging experiences that he lived through," Ms Tout-Smith said.

But despite the treasure-trove of documents, keepsakes, and photos, they have left many unanswered questions about his life.

What the contents of the suitcase do reveal about Mick Ward is that he was born in the coastal Victorian town of Lakes Entrance and after enlisting as a 26-year-old, he experienced the horrors of the trenches on the Western Front.

Photos and documents from the suitcase.
Photos and documents from the suitcase.

Wounded in battle, he returned to Australia, arriving back just after Armistice Day in 1918.

He eventually married and settled back in the Melbourne suburb of Bentleigh until his death in 1962.

Included in the collection is an aspirin bottle bought from a local chemist, but Ms Tout-Smith wants to know the source of the dirt collected inside.

"Where did he collect it? Was this a souvenir of the Western Front? Was this a part of Lakes Entrance he carried with him to the war.The bottle is post-war but we don't know about the contents but we are going to find out and that's part of the excitement of this collection. We can learn a lot," she said.

The collection will go on display at this weekend's Melbourne University's War Heritage Roadshow, which encourages families to learn more about their own memorabilia.

Melbourne University's cultural conservation manager, Jude Fraser, hopes any living relatives might come forward to unlock some of his mystery.

"They don't really have the story yet. The story's there they just have to find it and the same with some of the families with the roadshow, they have got to do their research and find the story," Ms Fraser said.

"It's like a jigsaw puzzle trying to find the answers."

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