A First World War veteran’s 106-year-old watch was returned to his 98-year-old son, a Second World War veteran, in Grande Prairie.
Bill Bessent Sr. was presented with his father’s watch on Nov. 24 by his son Bill Jr. It started with a voicemail son Bill initially thought might have been a scam.
“If you’re the grandson of Herbert Gordon Bessent, I think I’ve got some of his property that would probably belong to you; If you want to hear any more of it, give me a call at…” said the voicemail.
Bill Jr. was the grandson of Herbert, who most people called Bert; the call felt odd.
Still, Bill Jr. was curious so he called the mysterious number.
Jean-Guy Charest answered and was enthusiastic that Bill Jr. had returned his call.
“I still was hesitating a little bit, you know, I don’t know if this is all legit,” said Bill Jr.
Jean-Guy then sent photos of the watch to Bill Jr in a text message.
Photos of a silver watch with an engravement above the watch face read “Pte. H.G. Bessent,” and below the watch face showed an assortment of numbers.
The engraving on the back of the watch read, “Good Luck Bert from Blane, Ralph, Spaff — Aug. 27, 1917.”
This very wellappeared to be Bill’s grandfather’s watch.
A bag of watches
About two weeks earlier, Jean-Guy found a bag of watches for $15 at a thrift store in Edmonton. It was a nice purchase for the collector, who enjoys clocks and watches, taking apart the items, repairing them, and admiring the mechanics.
He said this bag was full of plastic and children’s watches. It wasn’t until he got home and began going through the watches that he noticed a particularly heavy one.
“I didn’t know what it was,” he said, and then, upon looking at the engraved date, noted it was the oldest he had ever encountered. Jean-Guy started collecting clocks about a year ago, which also led to a natural curiousity of watches.
He brought his new find to work the next day.
“I showed my coworker, and he said, ‘hey, I know how to look that up,’ and he came back like a half hour later with a little stack of papers, and he goes, ‘here knock yourself out, you might need a Kleenex.’”
Bert was a soldier in the First World War and would return to Canada to meet his future wife, Elaine.
The two would settle in Grande Prairie, and when war broke out again, they would see their twin sons, Bill and Bob, head to Europe and join the fight.
On Dec. 16, 1943, Bob and two other Grande Prairie locals, Gerald Strang and Harold (Sandy) Saunders, were sent on a mission into Berlin.
The next day, Bob’s plane crashed when trying to land, killing him and his crew mates; 32 aircraft were lost in the same mission.
The day would become known as Black Thursday in Grande Prairie.
Jean would then find articles about Bill Bessent Sr, including how he had recently received a 77-year-long service award from the Grande Prairie legion.
“When I found out that the one was still alive and that he had just gotten an award, and they’re still writing things about him, I’m like, well, this guy needs his stuff back,” said Jean-Guy.
He asked for help from his wife, who searched through social media and found that Bessents were still in Grande Prairie; he then found a W. Bessent in the White Pages online, who he believed to be the grandson of Bert, and left a message.
“I got on the phone and I tried not to make it sound like a scam,” he said.
About a week later, Bill Jr. returned the call and the two arranged for the watch to be returned to the Bessent family.
Jean-Guy requested one thing of the family: That they show him the presentation of the watch to Bill Sr.
A video was recorded of Bill Jr. giving the watch to his father and was sent to Jean-Guy.
“Gosh, it’s heavy,” said Bill Sr. when he held it for the first time.
Bill Jr. then attached the watch to his father’s wrist.
Bill Sr. looked at the camera and thanked Jean-Guy for returning the watch to the family.
The video cuts out as they begin discussing what may have happened to this watch in its 106-year journey from when Bert received it as a gift to his now 98-year-old son receiving it.
The 106-year mystery
How the watch ended up in a thrift store in Edmonton is still unknown.
Bill Jr. said he isn’t sure his dad ever knew about the watch, and doesn’t know if his grandfather lost it, had it stolen or maybe sold it as times were rough after the war. It’s a mystery that may never be solved, but he hopes more media attention may nudge someone forward.
Bill Jr. said he wonders if someone who owned the watch passed away and items from the house were given away; maybe the watch ended up at a thrift shop that way.
The watch was taken care of to a degree; its silver could still use a polish, but it still functions today.
Jean-Guy has his own theory.
“There were a lot of hard times back then,” he said.
“I think he met someone and wanted to put the war behind him.”
Jean-Guy said maybe the watch was sold to start a new life, maybe to buy a wedding band or funds to create that new life.
He believes someone paid for it, considering the watch is made of silver, and taken care of it for all these years.
Giving back the watch to the Bessent family was “all about good karma,” he said.
“If you know of anyone with some old watches, you can send them my way,” said Jean-Guy.
Still, some mysteries beyond the watch’s journey remain to Bill Jr., who said he has begun researching who Blane, Ralph, and Spaff may be, who gifted the watch to Bert those many years ago.
It may remain a mystery, but after 106 years, the watch has returned home.
By Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Dec 14, 2023 at 09:20