The Thirteenth Casualty, A Story of Luck During the First World War
From what I can tell, Cassells was still in the vicinity of La Bassée, but farther along the right flank where the ground was “pitted with big shell holes.” That spark of humanity that had lit up Christmas Day had been extinguished by heavy shelling on New Year’s Eve. Cassells later learnt that the Saxons had been replaced by Prussian troops.
The Germans were making a big push to break through to Calais for the Kaiser’s birthday and the Black Watch were in their way. Cassells recalled that it was about the middle of January. The German bombardment was furious: “the coal boxes, Jack Johnsons and Black Marias were just simply shaking the earth.”
Limbs were sent flying up through the air.
German spotter planes, constantly active overhead, were relaying accurate information back to their artillery and the guns were chewing up the British lines:
“The Jack Johnsons were landing to the right of our regiment and were gradually working their way up toward us. We could see them tearing up parts of the trenches smashing up men, whose limbs were sent flying up through the air. The sight was really too frightful to recall.”
As they watched the bombardment roaring towards them, the Black Watch were ordered to hold their ground. But as the shells fell amongst them, the fresh recruits, who had only arrived some days before, fled to the reserve trenches. Across No Man’s Land, the Germans had left their trenches and were surging forward on the attack.
Word came for the Black Watch to retire, but for Cassells it was too late. Added to the artillery bombardment was British small arms fire aimed at the advancing Germans. The firing was coming from behind Cassells and the rest of the Black Watch still in the forward trench. They were caught between the hammer and the anvil.
Cassells was about to take his chances when Sergeant Johnstone crawled over to him.
“Cassells,” said Johnstone, “let’s stick it out. This might last only a few minutes more and then it’ll be all right again.”
“All right, Johnstone,” said Cassells and they shook hands.
Suddenly a dark curtain dropped before my eyes.
The Germans were only a couple of hundred yards away. British artillery was trying to stop them and the shells were bursting so close to Cassells that he was being showered with earth and stones. Our own shells were bursting so close to our front that they were showering us with earth and stones. He would be over-run or blown to pieces.
That was the last thing he remembered. “Suddenly,” he wrote, “a dark curtain dropped before my eyes.”
The Miraculous Escape
When Cassells came to he was in a hospital in terrible pain. A Jack Johnson had exploded about 15 yards in front, blowing in the trench and burying Cassells and Sgt Johnstone. The attacking Germans had charged over the top of them, but were thrown back by the troops in the reserve trenches. Later that night, the Black Watch returned to the trench and began clearing it out. Cassells almost had his head staved in by a pickaxe, but a sharp-eyed soldier spotted him and he was dug out. They put him to one side, covered with a tarpaulin, and left him for dead. As well as being blown up, he had been buried for seven hours.
You certainly had a miraculous escape.
Luckily, a medical officer found him before the burial party. He found a pulse, bandaged him up as best he could and sent Cassells to the hospital at Rouen.
Whe he regained consciousness he found his right hand bandaged up and was told that in all likelihood one of his legs would have to be amputated. A medical officer on his rounds greeted him by saying, “You certainly had a miraculous escape.”
But Cassells was not out of danger. He was fighting infection and running a high fever. After two weeks in hospital he was still on the critical list. He watched as the soldier next to him, a German, was carried out dead. Cassells felt sure that he was next.
The Last Lucky Thirteen
It was then, at the point of giving up hope, that he discovered that his hospital bed was numbered thirteen. To anyone else this might have been the final straw, but for Cassells “recalling the many escapes from death I had had and how this number had been concerned in them, my hopes for recovery went soaring high.”
The psychological effect of this discovery may well have been the thing that saved him. Cassells recovered sufficiently to be sent back to Scotland and the Craigleith Military Hospital in Aberdeen. He kept his leg, but had lost a finger and on 5 August 1915 he was discharged from the Army as medically unfit for service. For Cassells, the war was over.
More Supernatural Stories from World War I
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 […]
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.