Thirteen Bullet Holes: Luck on the Western Front (2)

Joe Cassells Continues His Story of How Thirteen Came to be His Lucky Number in WWI

During the First World War, Joe Cassells was a scout in the Black Watch, a Scottish regiment in the British Army, and part of the British Expeditionary Force fighting on the Western Front. His experiences during the war led him to believe that thirteen was his lucky number.

This story of the bugle with thirteen bullet holes comes from Joe Cassells’s war memoir, The Black Watch: A Record in Action (1918), pp. 162-5.

The Curtain of Fire

Joe Cassells was in the trenches at La Bassée in Northern France on the Western Front. The events Cassells describes may have occurred during the Battle of La Bassée in October 1914 and certainly before December 1914. As Cassells relates, he was preparing for his first planned attack against the Germans. Until this point, battles had been surprise affairs. They would get word of an impending German assault moments before the attack came, giving them just enough time to get ready to defend themselves. Now they were about to go ‘over the top’ to a carefully preprepared schedule.

The waiting was the worst:

“Some of the men were carefully cleaning their rifles. Others ran their thumbs along the edges of their bayonets. Many were writing letters. But almost every face that I could see was pale. The greater part of them were nervously puffing away at fags, very often unlit.

“Here and there a man would glance at his watch furtively, as if afraid it would be thought that he was hoping the time had not yet come. Others were swearing softly and grumbling because they could not charge at once.

“Occasionally a man would joke or tell a funny story. Those who heard him either looked as if they hadn’t heard or laughed rather thinly. It is one thing to go at them with steel and rifle, but quite another to sit around and wait for the short blast of the whistle which sends you out to kill or to be killed.”

The British artillery was attempting to clear the way with a hail of explosives and shrapnel, and the German guns were giving back as good as they got – a “curtain of fire,” Cassells called it. Wagons laded with ammunition and rations were lumbering their way through this to enable a hundred extra rifles cartridges and extra tins of bully beef to be distributed.

Cassells had been sent back to regimental headquarters with a message. As well as being nervous about the coming attack and all that it implied, he now had to brave this “curtain of fire.”

As he was making his way back, he saw a German shell hit a transport wagon. “It was obliterated,” he said, and the men with it were “torn into shreds.” The forepart of a horse had been blown up into the crook of a tree and dangled there, dripping gore upon the battered ground. Stretcher bearers were immediately on the scene, trying to pick up casualties, but some men were never found. They had been blown to smithereens.

Cassells made it safely back to the firing trench, just in time to join the others in a frontal assault upon the heavily defended German positions. Like the others, he gouged out footholds in the trench wall.

First Man Over the Top

Above the thunder of the artillery, they heard it. A “little shrill metallic blast” – the whistle for the attack. “The blood surged back into the faces of the pale men,” he wrote, “We were fighting now. It was different from the waiting and the thinking of what we may be leaving behind us for always.”

Cassells did not hesitate. He was the first man out of the trench and running at the enemy. “Not that I was brave,” he wrote – although, to be sure, he was – “but because I had already learned that it was the last man up and the last man down who usually are shot. I sped ahead of all the platoon; for in that lay safety.”

Cassells had observed that soldiers in trenches generally fired into the mass of attackers, a more certain target, than pause to take more careful aim at a single running target. “Each man seems to feel that he is sure to hit someone if he fires into the mass,” he wrote, “and that another will pick off the leader.”

Thirteen Bullet Holes

Cassells was back in the British firing trench. He could only remember running the first fifty yards and nothing more until he was back again. What had happened in the charge I did not
know,” he wrote, “I can honestly state that my mind is a blank.”

He was sitting on the fire-step, no doubt somewhat dazed and puzzled by his blackout. He heard that the Black Watch had taken the German trenches, but had been pulled back again after support troops had been moved forward to occupy the German positions and prepare them for the expected counter-attack.

A friend, Jock Hunter, was also sitting on the firing step nearby. “Blow ‘Coffee up,'” he said, laughing.

Cassells looked at him blankly, wondering whether he had lost his wits.

“Blow ‘Coffee up,'” Hunter insisted, this time pointing to something at Cassells’s side.

Cassells looked down and saw a bugle, much knocked about, hanging by a cord from his shoulder. He took it off and looked at it. It was a bugle of the Potsdam Gaurds, riddled with bullet holes. He counted thirteen of them. “I was more bewildered than ever,” he wrote.

Hunter found it difficult to believe that Cassells had no recollection of how he obtained his souvenir. Cassells found it difficult, too. “I do not know how I got it,” he wrote, “The period of the charge is a slice of my life which is completely gone from my memory. I do not know what sights I saw nor what sounds I heard.” But there it was, a German bugle with thirteen bullet holes.

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