In a box that had been forgotten in a basement, two Calgary brothers found a link to their family's First World War history.

Monday marks a century since the beginning of the First World War, and some of that family's history is being displayed in Calgary at The Military Museums’ Great War Exhibit.

Robert and Michael Hilton

Robert Hilton, left, and Michael Hilton go through photos from their great-grandfather, including some from the First World War. (CBC)

"I can still feel the hairs of my neck standing out and kind of this chill that I get,” said Michael Hilton, who, with his brother, pulled their great-grandfather’s memorabilia from a basement.

“It's kind of like a kindred spirit I have with my great-grandfather, who I never met. It’s quite an honour to see that these items are being displayed in The Military Museums now to share his story that happened in the First World War.”

Michael's brother, Robert Hilton, said the box had been in his basement for years and years.

The forgotten box of family photos contained a fabric-wrapped picture of their great-grandfather, Edward Iley, from the First World War. 

The letter

The Hilton family found an old photo wrapped in a canvas letter. The canvas turned out to be from a German warplane. (The Military Museums )

"It was really strange; it was canvas, this kind of oiled canvas,” said Robert Hilton. “It was thick and heavy and it was folded." 

The fabric had been used by Iley to write a letter to his daughter during the war.

The piece of family history stirred emotional memories, said Iley’s granddaughter and the brothers’ mother, Jacolyn Hilton.

"I hadn't thought about Grandpa Iley in a long, long time, until Michael brought it up,” she said. “Then I started thinking, I remember the little things they do. He spoiled us — he always had treats for us." 

Researching the letter for a university course, Michael brought it to The Military Museums.

"They identified it right off the bat as being the fabric off of a German warplane,” said Michael Hilton.

More sleuthing revealed Iley was a member of the 12th Battalion, a railroad division that played a major role at the Cambrai front. 

That letter home was written on a piece of fabric from a plane downed by Iley's unit in 1917. 

From family to family 

"My mom had said that there used to be a pocket watch that was rattling around in a box and, sure enough, I opened up the box and there was this little tiny gold pocket watch,” said Michael Hilton.

Pocket watch

A pocket watch found with the memorabilia belonged to Friedrich Schoening, the German gunner of a downed plane. (The Military Museums )

They traced the initials on the watch to Friedrich Schoening, the German gunner of that downed plane. It was not unusual for soldiers in the First World War to lift souvenirs from the bodies of fallen enemies.

So now Michael is searching for relatives of Schoening to return the watch.

“The family deserves to possess their heritage back again. It has more meaning to them,” said Michael Hilton.

The Military Museums’ Rory Cory said it’s rare to be able to make such a connection.

"Giving some of the history behind the items really helps people connect with them on a personal level. They understand that these all were people that had wives, and children and lives back home,” said Cory.

“It helps us to connect more with that time period.”

With files from Carolyn Dunn