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Alberni Valley Museum’s wartime items hold stories from decades past

Red Cross ditty bag brought back by First World War veteran was used for personal items
A drawer full of wartime crests and other memorabilia (drawer No. A13) includes a Red Cross ditty bag that stretcher bearer Arthur Thompson brought home from the First World War. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

Among the thousands of artefacts ensconced in display cases at the Alberni Valley Museum are items that tell the story of two world wars and other global conflicts.

Wartime artefacts include everything from uniforms in the textiles area to medals, meat ration tokens, gas masks and other wartime tools. Each represents a moment in time for the people of Port Alberni who served overseas and who kept the home fires burning.

In one of the drawers in the textiles area upstairs at the museum, a small collection of crests surround a tea towel-type piece of fabric with the music and lyrics to John McCormack’s song ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ printed on the front. In the corner of the drawer is a yellowing cotton or linen drawstring sack with a stain in one corner, and a cracked red cross painted in the centre.

The bag, according to its museum catalogue information, is called a “personal property bag” or a “ditty bag.”

This particular bag was brought back home by the late Arthur Thompson, who was a stretcher bearer in the First World War. When the bag was donated it was still full of old bandages, but they disintegrated when they were being removed.

Ditty bags were used during the First and Second World Wars as well as the Korean War (1950-53) and were usually used to hold personal hygiene items such as toothbrush and toothpaste, razor, soap, handkerchief, socks, writing paper and envelopes, and perhaps tobacco or chewing gum.

Ditty bags were typically handed out by the Red Cross to soldiers in hospital or shipwreck victims who lost all their items during whatever tragedy brought them to hospital or back to port. Ditty bags were distributed by female Red Cross volunteers to Atlantic ports and overseas military hospitals.

Ditty bags were part of women’s wartime efforts, according to the Red Cross. Women across Canada formed sewing and knitting circles to make various items for hospital supplies and comfort items such as wool socks for soldiers.

The ditty bag once belonged to the late Arthur Robert Thompson, the nephew of the Arthur Thompson who served in the First World War. The item was donated to the Alberni Valley Museum on behalf of the Thompson family.

Anyone interested in “adopting” wartime memorabilia at the museum through the Adopt an Artefact program can ask at the front desk (4255 Wallace St.) or call 250-720-2863 and ask for the museum.

The adoption program began in 2020 as a way to help protect and preserve the history and heritage of the Alberni Valley by way of a tax-deductible donation or sponsorship of certain items. Adopters receive an adoption certificate, photo of their item (they don’t get to keep the item itself) with some information on its history and are named the adopter for one year.

Museum staff are willing to set up an adoption for any artefact of significance to someone.

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A Red Cross ditty bag, once owned by First World War veteran Arthur Thompson, was made for soldiers to carry personal hygiene items such as soap, razors, toothbrush and toothpaste or woolen socks. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

Susie Quinn

About the Author: Susie Quinn

A journalist since 1987, I proudly serve as the Alberni Valley News editor.
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