Lucky Thirteen on the Western Front (1)

A Soldier’s Superstition Concerning the Number Thirteen

Coincidences concerning the number thirteen, usually believed to be unlucky, convinced one soldier during the First World War that thirteen was his lucky number. His superstition about the number thirteen may even have saved his life.

Scotsman Joe Cassells was a scout in the Black Watch – in his words, “the world’s most famous fighting organization.”  Cassells had survived the Battle of Mons and the gruelling retreat after it – a fact he attributed in large part to the lucky coin given to him by a Frenchman.

Cassells’s story of his experiences during the First World War is a harrowing one. He was one of the few ‘Old Contemptibles’ to survive, seeing action from the Battle of Mons until he was blown up and finally discharged on August 5th, 1915, as being “no longer physically fit for war service.”

Lucky Thirteen

He was not always particular about dates and locations – his memoirs were published in 1918 and so still subject to wartime censorship. As far as I can tell the following event took place on the Western Front in the later part of 1914, certainly before his description of the Christmas Truce in 1914, possibly in the vicinity of “Dixmude or some town with a name like that.” (Dixmude is the French name for the Belgian town of Diksmuide in West Flanders.) This story comes from The Black Watch: A Record in Action (1918), pp. 148-152.

Cassells recalled that when the German shelling slackened off, he and his comrades in the Black Watch would pass the time playing cards. Even though the enemy artillery was not so active, they were bedevilled by extremely accurate sniper fire. As a test and grim amusement, one of the soldiers would occasionally hold up a target. He had a suitably long piece of wood with a notch in it to take a card and, slotting one in, would hold it above the trench parapet.

“Nine times out of ten,” said Cassells, “a German sniper (there were many of them in the vicinity) would put a hole in it with a bullet.”

When they were safe in the trenches it was no doubt fun to tease the German snipers, but there were times when they had to leave the trenches, times they all dreaded. Their water supply at this time was a small stream on the left flank. To get to it they had to cross exposed ground. The risk was such that no detail parties were sent during the day, but even at night the German snipers were uncannily accurate.

Rather than take their chances with the snipers, some soldiers had filled their bottles from a stagnant duck pond behind the frontline. But the water was foul, Cassells described it as “dirty, green, slimy, liquid,” and those who drank from it became sick and had to be hospitalized.

Thirteen Thirsty Soldiers

It so happened that there thirteen men in Cassells’s section and after two days of eating dry bully beef and biscuits they were “nearly insane from the lack of drinking water.” Four of them were playing cards and they decided to play a game of ‘phat’ to decide who would go for the water – the one with the lowest score would face the snipers.

Cassells was a good card player and confident that he would win, but this time he was on a losing streak. Cassells  had the lowest score at the end of the game and without a word the others collected the water bottles – all thirteen of them – and hung them over Cassells’s shoulder.

In silence, Cassells headed off towards the stream. He reached it without a shot having been fired and started filling the bottles. He was halfway through the thirteen bottles when a bullet zipped through the air and struck close by. Cassells tumbled into the stream with the bottles and got on with the job, although he observed that “This was not what one might call a comfortable or a convenient position in which to fill water bottles.”

When he was finished, he slung the bottles back over his shoulders and scrambled, dripping out of the stream. He got as far as twenty paces when a bullet hit the ground behind him. Cassells jumped and looked upward to give the sniper the false impression that he was firing too high and make him reset his sights. It worked. The next shot fell short.

Cassells struggled on. A third shot visibly hit a rock, allowing the sniper to adjust his range. The fourth shot found its target. Cassells knew that it had hit something about him, but felt no pain. He threw himself to the ground and lay still. There was some scattered fire from the German lines. Cassells recalled that he was “trembling with ‘nerves.'”

Expecting another round at any moment – German snipers habitually put another bullet into a downed target just to make sure – Cassells jumped up and made a rush for the British trenches. A moving target was better than a sitting duck.

Thirteen Water Bottles

He made it. Tumbling back into the safety of the trench, he made his way back to his section.

“Ye’ve been a hell-o’ time awa’,” said one of his pals, “We were just beginnin’ tae think we’d lost our water bottles.”

Cassells unslung the bottles. The men in the section crowded round to grab their bottles. Cassells was left holding three of them, his own and two that had been shot through.

While he had been out fetching the water, a German shell had exploded and killed two of the card players. The shot water bottles had belonged to them.

It would not be Cassells last encounter with the mysterious number thirteen.

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