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Mark Brigham found this portrait of Major Alfred Frank Mantle in a University of Regina storage room in 2010. (Mark Taylor for The Globe and Mail)
Mark Brigham found this portrait of Major Alfred Frank Mantle in a University of Regina storage room in 2010. (Mark Taylor for The Globe and Mail)

Picture of forgotten WWI vet tells a thousand words for historian Add to ...

Sporting a fashionable officer’s mustache and gazing serenely off-camera, this Canadian First World War soldier has the bearing of a man older than his 30-some years. An inscription on the wood frame of the black-and-white photograph identifies him as Major Alfred Frank Mantle and gives his date of death – Sept. 26, 1916.

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Somehow, the image would end up in a biology department storage room at the University of Regina. In the winter of 2010, when staff were cleaning the place out, department head Mark Brigham dropped by and found the picture sitting in a trash heap. He rescued it, cleaned years of stains and watermarks from the glass and set about researching the man in hopes of tracking down his descendents.

“I was thinking, ‘Who is this and why is it here?’ ” he said. “I just knew the photo would mean something to someone.”

The age-old thirst for knowledge about family history prompts thousands of Canadians each year to trawl databases or travel to Europe to research their genealogy. Prof. Brigham’s motivation, however, is not familial connection or professional duty, but simply a burning curiosity. In addition to his career as a scientist, he’s had a fascination with military history that stretches back to his childhood. His own grandfather fought in the First World War, losing an eye during a battle to take Hill 60 on the Western Front.

As it turns out, Mr. Mantle was a major figure in Saskatchewan’s early history, helping to set up its Agriculture Department and extending credit to farmers to rev up the province’s economy. But despite this illustrious biography, the only direct descendant Prof. Brigham traced seems to have fallen through the cracks.

Over the last two years, the professor has spoken with civil servants in the Saskatchewan government, tracked down old military documents, found the spot in France where Mr. Mantle was killed and corresponded with researchers at ancestry.ca. Along the way, he learned that he wasn’t the only one to take an interest in the long-dead soldier.

Prof. Brigham’s first stop was the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. It detailed how Mr. Mantle, who went by his middle name, Frank, was raised in a British orphanage and, in 1898, left a desk job in London to homestead on the unforgiving Manitoba prairie. In 1909, he moved to Regina to work in Saskatchewan’s Department of Agriculture. Within a year, he was deputy minister. Married in 1904, he had three children – Donovan, Edith and Edward. In August, 1915, Mr. Mantle enlisted in the infantry to take part in the Commonwealth war effort.

By coincidence, Prof. Brigham had previously scheduled a trip to visit the battlefields of the First World War in northern France a few weeks after his find. With the help of a tour guide, he visited the place where Mr. Mantle fell, near Courcelette, during the Battle of the Somme, and tracked down regimental records of his death, at the age of 34. The documents suggested he was killed by an artillery shell and his remains could not be recovered.

Back in Regina, staff at the Department of Agriculture put Prof. Brigham in touch with retired civil servant John Hickie, who had himself become fascinated with Mr. Mantle many years before. Through a folder of yellowing newspaper clippings, Mr. Hickie learned that Mr. Mantle had expanded the department enormously, adding new units to deal with everything from wildlife to the co-operatives that would become a staple of farming in the West.

“The tragedy is that because he had such a strong sense of duty, he went into the war,” Mr. Hickie said. “I had such a great admiration, and I often felt something should be done to memorialize him.”

Mr. Hickie put a plaque detailing Mr. Mantle’s achievements in a government boardroom and has lobbied to have him included in the provincial agriculture hall of fame.

When Prof. Brigham got in touch, Mr. Hickie informed him of another twist to the story: Mr. Mantle’s younger son, Edward, was killed in the Second World War, in 1944. The Mantle Lakes, in the northern Saskatchewan backcountry, were named for them.

Mr. Hickie had been in contact with Mr. Mantle’s grandson, who lives in the Vancouver area and shares the same name, Frank, as his grandfather. In 2010, he was about 60 and didn’t seem to know much about his grandfather’s achievements.

But when Prof. Brigham tried to telephone the younger Mr. Mantle, the number was disconnected.

Prof. Brigham and Mr. Hickie have a few ideas for keeping alive the memory of the pioneering civil servant. For one, they hope to have a bush pilot take a plaque to the shores of Mantle Lakes.

As for the photograph, it sits in Prof. Brigham’s office, unclaimed by family, the near-forgotten soldier and innovator frozen in the prime of his life.

Follow on Twitter: @adrianmorrow

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