Did a Frenchman’s Lucky Coin Save a British Soldier at the Battle of Mons?
More than one soldier during the First World War put superstitious faith in a lucky coin, here is one man’s story from the Battle of Mons and the Retreat after.
As a former regular soldier, Scotsman Joe Cassells was a first-class reservist in the British Army. He was mobilized the day after war was declared on Germany. On the 5th of August, 1914, he and his brother soldiers assembled at Queen’s Barracks in Perth, headquarters of the Black Watch – in his words, “the world’s most famous fighting organization.”
Within three hours, a thousand men had been armed and equipped, and entrained for Aldershot. A week’s hard training knocked them into shape before a steamship took Cassells and the rest of the 1st Battalion to Le Havre.
It is an axiom of war that the first troops almost invariably suffer the greatest losses.
The Frenchman’s Lucky Coins
On August 19th the volume of military traffic on the roads forced them to stop and wait at a town called Boue. The Black Watch were allowed to go swimming in a nearby canal. Afterwards, as Cassells and a friend were dressing themselves, an old Frenchman approached and gave them each a half-franc piece, it would, he said bring them luck and see them through the war alive. The Frenchman’s lucky coins were the first money he had made as a boy, and he had kept them as tokens ever since.
Cassells did not record what he thought of the Frenchman’s lucky coin at the time. Did he take it out of politeness? Or did he believe in its strange powers? Superstitions have a curious power of contagion.
On the Road to Mons
On August 21st they were on the march once more. They left Boue at three in the morning and did not stop marching until three o’clock the morning after. And as they marched they could hear the German heavy artillery growing louder: “It sounded just like the noise they make on the stage when a battle is supposed to be in progress in the distance,” he wrote.
He was unaware of the fact, but the Black Watch were on their way to Mons to hold the British left flank.
On August 25th, they had made a short halt in Grande Range when the thrumming of an engine overhead brought the soldiers running out of their billets in local houses and barns. Approaching was the first German airplane they had seen. When it was directly overhead it let loose a rack of steel darts. One stuck in the pavement in front of Cassells’s company quarters. It imbedded itself so deeply that not a man could pull it out. Cassells had seen other darts go straight through a house from the attic to the cellar.
Expecting an attack, the soldiers rushed to the village outskirts and began entrenching. The officers decided that the position was not a good one and they moved to higher ground at another location. German aircraft found them again and soon after long-range artillery began shelling their positions. The wooden steeple of a church in a nearby village was in flames and the regiment had already suffered its first casualties.
The First Battle
We were in action against the Boches, at last!”
“As we lay in our shallow trenches, a big shell every now and then falling amongst us, another regiment, retreating under heavy fire, broke into view from the woods, a mile or more in front of our line. We soon made them out the Scots Guards, hotly pursued by a superior force of Uhlans, and, as the German commander fondly believed, near capture. We, in our trenches, were in a fever to get our fire on the Germans but they were so close upon the Guards that we dared not fire a shot. The Guards, putting up a stiff fight directly in front of our position, checked the Uhlans sufficiently to enable their own organization to continue its retreat, swinging over in the direction of our left flank. This gave us our chance and we poured a hot rifle and machine-gun fire into the pursuing force. We were in action against the Boches, at last!”
Cassells had arrived to find the British Expeditionary Force in retreat. The Scots Guards now provided covering fire as the Black Watch fell back along the road to Hautmont. Now he would test the Frenchman’s lucky coin.
The Retreat from Mons
The Black Watch had been on the march since August 21st, with hardly a moments pause and that largely take up by digging trenches. “In this exhausted state,” wrote Cassells, “we began the furious fatal struggle against an over-whelming and irresistible enemy which is known in history as the Retreat from Mons.”
During the Retreat he lost track of the dates – he did not want to remember them – the impression left in his mind was of the blazing hot August sun, mouths caked with dust, throats parched, marching, always marching, and when they were not marching they were fighting rearguard actions against the pursuing Germans: ” our feet bleeding, our backs breaking, our hearts sore.”
The Superstition of the Lucky Coin
Cassells had lived through the first battle with the Germans, not quite at Mons, but as near as damn it; and he lived through the retreat after. His friend did, too:
“The last I heard of my chum was that he had been discharged from active service because of wounds, and so it would appear his half-franc piece really did bring him through, just as mine did me.”
Joe Cassells wrote about his First World War experiences, including the story of the lucky coin, in The Black Watch: A Record in Action (New York: Doubleday, 1918).