On a winter day more than two years ago, Mark Brigham discovered a large framed photograph of Major Alfred Frank Mantle, a First World War soldier, languishing in a storage room at the University of Regina.
Motivated by a fascination with military history and burning curiosity, Prof. Brigham set out to track down family members to whom he could give the portrait, a journey that would take him from the university basement to the battlefields of France.
And this month, it came to an end at a Toronto-area condominium, where the professor presented the portrait to several of Mr. Mantle’s descendants, including his 76-year-old grandson, Alfred Frank MacTaggart.
“It with a tinge of sadness I give this to you. It has become such a part of my life,” Prof. Brigham said, resting his hand on the photo. “But I know it’s in the right place.”
And as he cut away the bubble wrap and duct tape that kept the photo safe on the journey, the resemblance between the distinguished, mustachioed young officer in the picture – a pioneering civil servant in Saskatchewan’s agriculture ministry before he joined the army – and the genial pensioner sitting on the couch was unmistakeable.
“Too bad I shaved my mustache,” Mr. MacTaggart joked.
Getting the photo to him was no small feat.
First, Prof. Brigham learned that, when Mr. Mantle died, he left a widow, Ethel, and three young children: Donovan, Edith and Edward. He also discovered that both Mr. Mantle and his youngest son, Edward, went by their middle name, Frank. The seemingly insignificant detail would prove crucial.
By the end of last year, the trail was cold. The only living relative anyone knew of was Donovan’s son, also named Alfred Frank Mantle, a middle-aged man who had little interest in his forebear. In hopes of generating some fresh leads, Prof. Brigham contacted The Globe and Mail, which published a story about his quest in early January.
Shortly after, the professor got a call from an elderly retiree named Don Anderson who filled him in on the family’s history. After Mr. Mantle was killed in the Battle of the Somme, Ethel married Mr. Anderson’s great-uncle and relocated with her young children to Vancouver. As a child, Mr. Anderson was given Mr. Mantle’s old gear, including a binocular case, to play with. He also recalled that Edith, Mr. Mantle’s daughter, had married a man with the surname MacTaggart.
Scouring the phone directory, Prof. Brigham found a listing for an “A. Frank MacTaggart” in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga and knew he was onto something. He discovered a genealogy website run by Trevor MacTaggart, Alfred Frank MacTaggart’s 45-year-old son, and sent him an e-mail.
When they heard from Prof. Brigham, the family was intrigued. Although the elder Mr. MacTaggart shares his grandfather’s name – and, of course, goes by Frank – he had only a faint idea of who his ancestor was.
He does, however, have a sharp memory, and when Prof. Brigham arrived to present the photo, he was happy to share his recollections.
Ethel, he recalled, drove a 1941 Ford coupe, taking her young grandsons on outings to the lake. Edith, Mr. MacTaggart’s mother, was a homemaker.
His Uncle Donovan, he said, was a champion swimmer who won several competitions in Vancouver’s English Bay. He served in the artillery in the Second World War and later enjoyed a successful career as a salesman for tractor, faucet and insurance companies. He died in 1990.
His Uncle Frank, meanwhile, was a friendly man with a bold disposition. On one occasion during his childhood, Mr. MacTaggart recalled, he was riding with his brother in Frank’s Austin 7 when the car ran out of gas. So his uncle lay down in the middle of the road to get a passing motorist to stop and give them a lift. Edward Frank Mantle was killed in the Second World War.
Mr. MacTaggart retired more than a decade ago after working as an executive and manager for two department store chains.
For his teenaged grandsons, Jacob and Mitchell, the discovery of the portrait was a teachable moment. By coincidence, Jacob was studying the First World War in school when Prof. Brigham contacted the family, and the discovery helped make the history more real.
And there is one coda to the story. A pair of lakes deep in the north Saskatchewan backcountry were named for Mr. Mantle and his son Edward Frank. Prof. Brigham had a memorial plaque made for the pair that will be flown up this summer and installed on a rock on the shore by bush pilot Doug Chisholm.
The portrait will hang in the office of Trevor MacTaggart’s Oakville home.
“As the days and years are flying by, it’s easy for us to forget the past. This is a physical reminder, something we will see, something that will stimulate conversation,” he said. “If this hadn’t have happened, I never would have known about it. It would have been lost.”