Could Unlucky Thirteen Be This First World War Soldier’s Lucky Number?
Joe Cassells and his unusual relationship with the number thirteen during the First World War were not over after the strange events at Dixmude and La Bassée. The Black Watch scout had another tale to tell and this one, more than the others, was the one that convinced him that thirteen really was his lucky number.
I believe that thirteen is my lucky number.
From the vague desription he gives in his war memoir The Black Watch: A Record in Action, Cassells was probably back at La Bassée or thereabouts – “we were returned to a portion of the trench near a part we had occupied before,” he wrote – after a short break in rest billets to build the battalion back up to full strength. It was still 1914, coming before his description of the Christmas Truce. The story is told in The Black Watch, pp. 173-7.
Could Luck Help in ‘Crossing the Bar’?
Cassells was back in the trenches, but noted that few of his old comrades were still with him. The ‘Old Contemptibles’ were dwindling from a rare breed to close to extinction. This realisation must have been like a star shell on a night patrol, illuminating the danger all around.
In their new sector, Cassells and the rest of the 1st Battalion were frequently sent out scouting and patrolling an area of higher, broken ground on their right from where they could get vital information about German troop movements. To get there, however, they had to cross thirty yards of exposed ground. “So many men had been killed here,” he wrote, “that we called it ‘crossing the bar’ when we had to traverse this neck of land.
As Cassells explained, the British deficit in aircraft at this stage of the war meant that reconnoitring had to be done by ground forces. And in this sector it was made that much more dangerous by the necessity of crossing the exposed ground. “Whenever they saw even a single man ‘crossing the bar,'” wrote Cassells, “the Huns would let loose a salvo of artillery fire.”
Cassells’s strategy was to wait until it was dark enough for him to see the flashes of the enemy guns. Then, as he crossed the exposed strip, when he saw a muzzle flash, he would run towards it before throwing himself to the ground. The Germans knew the exact range and his technique gave him the chance of getting ahead of the shell. When it exploded, the shrapnel was thrown forward.
Thirteen Men Running Towards the Guns
Not luck, then, but forethought, got Cassells safely over the bar. One day he was instructed to show a party of new scouts the way across. He counted twelve men; thirteen, including himself.
First, he draw a quick sketch illustrating what to do when the Germans opened fire: “That we would be fired upon was a certainty.”
As the daylight drained from the sky, Cassells judged that the time had come. He brought his men to the edge of the bar. They stared across the deadly ground before them.
The area of the bar was litered with shell fragments and scarred by their explosions. Roughly in the centre was a dried up stream bed offering minimal cover.
“Rush!” shouted Cassells and they all rushed forward, spread out in a thin line.
From the direction of the German trenches, Cassells saw the guns flash.
“Straight toward them!” he shouted, “and we all ran madly in the direction from which the shells were coming”
“Down!” Cassells shouted at the top of his voice, throwing himself to the ground.
The sound of exploding shells engulfed him. He could not tell where they had landed, whether in front or behind. He was only surprised that he was not injured.
From behind him he could hear someone groaning. Not everyone had been so lucky, then. As there were no other sounds, Cassells concluded that the rest of the men must have continued running and made it to the stream bed.
Still lying out in the open, he dared not move. Star shells went up into the dark sky, throwing their cold, dead light upon the bar. Cassells prayed that the injured man would also lie still. Any movement and the German guns would open up again.
Cassells lay half an hour in the mud before the flares stopped going up. He waited until he thought it safe and crept forward. In the dark, his hands found the body of a man. This one was not groaning, but still he heard groaning nearby. He crept farther towards the sound. And found another quiet corpse.
Groping around in the dark, he found the injured man. He kept searching to see if there were any others who needed help. There were eleven bodies in the mud. no longer moving. No longer breathing. There were only the two of them left.
“I stood up despairing and like one lost,” wrote Cassells, “I almost wished that I had been one of the eleven who had ‘crossed the bar’ once for all.”
Cassells hefted the injured man over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift and walked back to their line. “I had forgotten the danger of shells,” he wrote, “Luckily it was inky dark and I was not seen.”
He staggered into the barbed wire entanglements and called out for help. Four men crawled out from the British position and helped pull the wounded man back intot he trench. He was still groaning softly, but as they lifted him over the trench parapet the growning stopped: “He was dead! I alone of the thirteen had come back alive!”
More Supernatural Stories from World War I
Soldier Joe Cassells, a scout with the Black Watch, told several stories of how he came to regard thirteen as his lucky number. Trench superstitions were rife during the First World War, but whereas most people think of thirteen as unlucky, a series of strange coincidences and events convinced Cassells that thirteen would always bring him good fortune.
Joe Cassells, a soldier in the First World War, tells of a strange coincidence concerning the number thirteen on the Western Front. Cassells would come to believe that thirteen was his lucky number.