The ‘Hand of Fate’ in the Great War
by Patricia Rothwell
A Risky and Uncertain Business
It goes without saying that war is a risky and uncertain business, and that it is always difficult to predict the outcome, especially for the individual soldier, but in the First World War (WW1) a combination of factors resulted in the line between the average solder surviving that war and not doing so being both fine, and also often a matter of pure chance, perhaps to a greater extent than in any other war before or since.
Those factors include the greater deadliness of weapons used in WW1 compared with those in use previously, the fact that the weapons were increasingly indiscriminate in their effects, the lack of effective strategies to combat those developments, and the willingness of the commanders-in-chief to put hugely significant numbers of men in harm’s way with no very effective protection; perhaps also the fact that so many ‘ordinary’ men volunteered or were conscripted, rather than the participants being mainly professional career soldiers; and also the way in which in Europe the situation on the ground evolved into an almost unimaginably long double line of trenches facing each other in stalemate, which encouraged each side, even in comparatively quiet times, to take opportunistic ‘potshots’ at the other across a very wide front.
Discovering my Grandfather’s Memoir
My own awareness of the part played by chance in the stories of individual WW1 soldiers dates back to the discovery, in about 2010, of the existence of a memoir written by my grandfather, Captain Norman Hall, the original manuscript of which is now in the Imperial War Museum for safe-keeping, and which I have since edited and published under the title A Lancashire Fusilier’s First World War. So impressed was I with the number of close shaves that Norman describes that I felt compelled to list them at the end of the published book in an Appendix. I identified over fifty instances where, if a bullet or a shell had been a little to the left, or a little to the right, or if the timing of events had been slightly altered, the outcome might have been very different. It is fair to say that some of the escapes listed were narrower than others, but it is also fair to say that the list does not by any means include every instance where there was gunfire or shelling in my grandfather’s vicinity.
Here is just one of the narrow escapes Norman describes, when, in August 1916, his company of Lancashire Fusiliers were passing through an area of the Somme known to the British as ‘Death Valley’, under the command of Captain Kenneth Waterhouse, whose nickname was ‘The Skipper’:
“We had a little exposed stretch to cross, and scarcely had I got up on this part than I heard two shells coming over. They burst; I could see nothing – it was pitch dark. Bits – lumps of earth, stone and shell – came down.
I was blown off my feet, about 15 yards. When I picked myself up – dazed – I realised that several men must be killed. There were about 15 killed. Sergeant Catterall and Private Wright, who were directly behind me, were never seen again. How on earth I escaped is nothing short of a miracle. We pushed on to try to clear the trench before another came – but it did – something whizzed past my head – it was a man’s foot – bootless and sockless. The test of nerves was awful … When [the Skipper] met me he burst out crying, “My God, boy, I’m glad to see you – I was certain you were killed with the rest.” I was a mess too, my tunic was simply covered at the back with blood. The Skipper insisted that I was hit – but I wasn’t; and why is an unanswerable question.”
Describing a later incident on 17 October 1917 when he was acting as company quartermaster and billeted in Coxyde-sur-Mer he wrote: “We had a very unpleasant experience of shelling in the evening. Our billet was practically in the centre of the village where several roads converged. Also the tower on our billet was an excellent ranging mark. When they started I was sitting near the window, a shell burst in the middle of the road – smashed our windows and I narrowly escaped getting hit in the head.”
Beginning the process of writing his memoir in 1919, Norman recognised how fortunate he had been to survive. Regarding an incident when he was called away to speak to his commanding officer on the telephone from a neighbouring dug-out, and returned to find that his own dug-out had been shattered by a shell during his absence, he remarks: “Just one of those many ‘might have beens’.”; and he prefaces an account of how he cheated death by vacating a trench a minute or so before it was blown in by a shell (unfortunately killing two men who, unbeknown to him, had entered it just after he had left it) by saying: “I added or – rather deducted – one more life from my ‘nine cat’s lives’.”
Although these passages were written after the war, my grandfather must have been well aware even during the war of how often he was ‘dicing with death’, and the same would have applied to his comrades.
Naturally, my interest in the part played by chance in the survival of the man whom I always knew as ‘Grandpa’ was heightened by the fact that, if he had not survived the war, neither I, nor my sister, nor any of our cousins, would have been born. Subsequently I have learned that the extent to which my grandfather owed his survival to luck was by no means unusual.
Other Examples of the Part Played by Chance in WW1 Literature
My grandfather’s WW1 memoir prompted me to seek out other first-hand accounts of that war, both autobiographical and quasi-autobiographical. In this article I will focus on George Coppard’s With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, John Lucy’s There’s a Devil in the Drum, Frank Richards’ Old Soldiers Never Die, W.V. Tilsley’s Other Ranks, Albert Clayton’s Long Before Daybreak, and – from the other side of the wire – Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Reading these, I came to the conclusion that anyone who survived the Great War must, without exception, have had similar brushes with death to those narrated by Grandpa Norman. In books such as these, stories abound of being next in line to those who fell, or of bullets or shells coming so close as to lodge in clothing or equipment, or of men narrowly avoiding being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or turning out to be in the wrong place at the wrong time because of an adjustment in their position or role. In fact, I think that it would be a struggle to find a book of this type which does not contain at least one such event.
For example, in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, the narrator says, “A few months ago I was sitting in a dug-out playing skat; after a while I stood up and went to visit some friends in another dug-out. On my return nothing more was to be seen of the first one, it had been blown to pieces by a direct hit. I went back to the second and arrived just in time to lend a hand digging it out.” Meanwhile, in Old Soldiers Never Die, Frank Richards, then acting as a signaller, relates how at one point he was keen to swap places with another signaller called Green, but in the end did not do so; later, while he was speaking on the telephone to Green (who was then in the position in which Richards would have been if the swap had taken place), the line went dead, and he subsequently learned that at that moment Green had been killed by a shell. In John Lucy’s There’s a Devil in the Drum, while running an errand near the front, Lucy was “caught in a barrage and bolted into a dug-out” which turned out to be occupied by the officers of another regiment, who, when he asked if he could take shelter with them for a while, ordered him to go immediately back out into the shelling; the next day his regiment found the CO and adjutant of the other regiment dead in the blown-in dug-out.
By way of further example, W.V. Tilsley’s alter ego in Other Ranks, Dick Bradshaw, allows five subordinates to take shelter in a dug-out 20 yards behind the front, while he remains alone in the sentry post in the main front trench, which should have been the more dangerous position, but it is the dug-out that is hit, resulting in four of the five subordinates being killed or badly injured, while he himself remains unscathed. Meanwhile, in Old Soldiers Never Die three men move off some steps to allow Frank Richards and two others to climb down the steps into the trench, and instantly the first three are hit and killed by a shell, while the three men descending the steps are unharmed. Elsewhere in the same book a sergeant in charge of the officers’ mess-cart, whose job according to Richards should have been safe enough to allow him to take out life insurance, had made a delivery to the officers’ dug-out at the front, and was half-way safely back to his mess-cart before he realised he had forgotten something; retracing his steps to the officers’ dug-out, he was killed by a shell half-way along his second return journey.
Ruminating upon the vicissitudes of chance in All Quiet on the Western Front Erich Maria Remarque’s narrator speaks of the risks routinely faced on the front line thus:
“The front is a cage in which we must await fearfully whatever may happen. We lie under the network of arching shells and live in a suspense of uncertainty. Over us Chance hovers. If a shot comes, we can duck, that is all; we neither know nor can determine where it will fall … It is just as much a matter of chance that I am still alive as that I might have been hit.”
By their very nature, chance events are outwith our control, and the options to escape the exigencies of chance are limited. In the Great War, you could make things worse for yourself by, as Albert Clayton says, “putting yourself in the way of events, inviting Chance, as it were, to have a crack at you” (describing the death of a religious maniac who believed that he could walk along the top of a trench unscathed as one of “the Lord’s anointed”). Or, as time went on, particularly as men became more experienced, there were small precautions that they could take to improve their chances – keeping their head below the parapet at all times, wearing their steel helmets (when these became available) or keeping the latest gas helmet ready to hand, not giving away the position of sentry posts unnecessarily, learning to make a split second decision as to which way to dodge when a shell came over, and so on. But essentially they still remained hostages to fortune. In the incident Norman refers to as using up one of his nine cat’s lives, the decision to move from the trench he was in was not purely arbitrary, yet nor was it completely scientific. It was based on a hunch that the shells coming from the Germans seemed to be getting closer to the trench; that lucky judgment call turned out to be right, but it could just as easily have turned out to be wrong. In Other Ranks, Dick Bradshaw convinces himself that a shell is about to land on the spot where he is, but goes on “Yet he didn’t move. Likely as not the shell would be a few yards wide. Why move into it?”
Moreover, sometimes it would be self-evident that there was absolutely nothing that men could do to ameliorate their position, for example when trapped in a trench with shells raining all around them, or when ordered to advance into a hail of machine gun fire.
How Did They Cope?
While not in any way wishing to detract from the bravery of people who face danger in circumstances where they can hope to influence the outcome, it is quite another thing for people to find themselves in harm’s way in circumstances where the outcome depends purely, or primarily, on chance. How on earth did the soldiers of WW1 cope with this state of affairs?
Some of them didn’t, of course; the strain proved altogether too much, and their nerves gave way. For those who were able to remain calm in the face of danger when there was absolutely nothing they could do to protect themselves, they might rely, to use John Lucy’s words, on “the luck of soldiers”, but, as Erich Maria Remarque’s narrator says, “No soldier outlives a thousand chances”, and relying on luck might not always have been enough to steady the nerves.
It must have been beneficial (but not easy) if a man was able to accept the lack of control and surrender to it, thus absolving himself from the responsibility of even trying to avoid a seemingly imminent catastrophe which he was, in reality, powerless to avert, and it is not surprising that it is by no means uncommon to come across a fatalistic approach to life. In George Coppard’s book, as his unit moves up towards the Somme front line at the end of June 1916, he says “The parts which we each and severally were to play were in the hands of Fate”, and as the book draws to an end, when he is about to receive the wound that takes him out of the war for the final time, he says: “The finger of fate was beginning to point in my direction”; and, again, commenting on the fact that there happened to be men at hand to help him when he was wounded: “Fate was kind to me”. Meanwhile Frank Richards says “Fate played a cruel trick with him” in relation to a Boer War veteran who was the only one of three men to survive an incident of carbon monoxide poisoning, albeit needing medical attention, only to be killed by a shell as soon as he returned to the front about two months later. John Lucy attributes the death of a man in his first action to “some curious trick of fate”, and, as his story draws to a close, he says that, although it was rumoured that his unit was to be sent to Amiens for a long rest, “Fate ruled otherwise”, and they were sent back to Cambrai instead; there he received the wound that took him out of the war for good.
In the BBC television comedy written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, Blackadder goes Forth, a joke is made of the fact that Baldrick carries with him at all times a bullet on which he has written his name, reasoning that, as he can only be killed by ‘the’ bullet with his name on it, then, so long as he neutralises that bullet, he has nothing to worry about. The fallacy of his reasoning is so obvious that it makes us laugh, but the joke is predicated upon a type of fatalism which was real enough in WW1, and may well have had its origins in that war. Thus George Coppard says, “As most Tommies agreed, if it’s got your bloody number on it there’s nothing you can do about it.” He has also named one of his chapters, the one in which he describes being accidentally shot through the foot by his fellow machine gunner: “My number was on it”. In a similar vein Albert Clayton reflects, “It was commonly said by the old soldiers, some of whom had lived through from the dim past of 1914, that if your number was on a bullet, you’d get it, dodge it how you would. If the Fates had picked out a certain time and place for you to be killed, and a particular bullet to do the job, there was no avoiding your destiny. Until the hour struck, neither bomb nor shell could touch you, but at the appointed time that bullet would come round corners after you …”
Closely aligned with fatalism is the idea that, if everything is pre-ordained, it can be foreseen, and, sure enough, it is not uncommon for premonition to feature in WW1 narrative. For example, in Old Soldiers Never Die a signaller named Dann, seeing a giant rat, turns pale, and says that the rat will be nearby when he is killed; sure enough, Richards reports seeing the same giant rat when Dann meets his end. Was this a real phenomenon, or were so many men killed or wounded in that war that it was natural sometimes to think the worst, and, by the law of averages, if you thought the worst, sometimes you were going to be proved right? It is certainly the case that there are also instances in the literature of men who had ‘premonitions’ of disaster which did not come to fruition, for example, Sergeant-Major Williams in Long Before Daybreak, who declared, just as they were about to go over the top, “We shall never get out of this alive! Never! It’s the finish this time”, and whose face as he said it “took on a curious far away look as if he were already dead and seeing visions of those who had passed on”, but who re-appeared totally unscathed at the end of the engagement. Elsewhere in the same book, preparing for another attack, Clayton says “the cards were cut” and refers to “the inexorable process of destiny”, then goes on to say: “Apprehension or foreboding in the face of an obvious danger is an understandable thing. Prescience … appears to me, on the other hand, to be a much more doubtful quantity.”
Putting the literature to one side for a moment, I would like at this point to quote from the last letter written to his father by Lieutenant Edgar Harold McVicker of the Royal Army Medical Corps, who, aged 23, was killed on 9 September 1916 by a shell which landed on his Aid Post on the Somme shortly after he had treated the wounded Norman there. Norman was aware that Lieutenant McVicker had been killed, but would not have been aware of the contents of the letter, which reads:
It is awfully hard to write this letter, but I think it best for some way or other I have the feeling that I will not come out alive. It is a funny feeling but in no way does it deter me from wanting to go into action with my regiment. If I am killed you will know that I died doing my duty to the best of my ability, and never shirking what I saw was my duty.
Lieutenant McVicker, despite having foreseen his death, was not tempted to try to avoid it. The way in which he expressed himself in his letter demonstrates an extraordinarily courageous and well-developed sense of duty, but in fact I am not aware of any instance, even in the case of lesser men, where someone with a sense of foreboding tried to avert disaster by e.g. being allocated to another duty or position. Maybe the ‘sense of foreboding’ was rarely specific enough to enable a person to be precise about the exact danger that they should avoid, or maybe, if the disaster was foreseeable because it was pre-ordained, logic suggested that there would be no point in trying to avoid it.
Fatalism and Premonition in A Lancashire Fusilier’s First World War
Naturally I was interested to see whether I could glean anything about what my grandfather’s take on these matters was from what he has to say in his memoir.
Having lost one of his men to an opportunistic sniper, he says:
Such an incident as this brought home to each and all of us … the uncertainty of it all. One almost became a Fatalist, for no one could know from one minute to the next what might happen.
These words suggest that he recognised the benefits of fatalism, but could not quite bring himself fully to espouse it as a philosophy.
Regarding premonition, he mentions two examples of comrades seeming to have had a premonition of what was about to happen. In one case, immediately before going up to the front line, one of his fellow-officers had packed up his belongings and told Norman that if anything happened to him his kit was all ready to send home, following which, within hours, he had been very seriously wounded by a sniper. In the other case the man in question spoke to Norman only five days before his death saying that he expected to be killed in the near future. Regarding himself, before being wounded in September 1916, Norman says: “I had an uncanny feeling about this battle – I really felt that something was going to happen; not that I felt that I should be killed, but there was a feeling …
Norman’s last words on the subject come in November 1918, when, finding himself away from the action as a result of breaking his ankle in a riding accident, and frustrated by the fact that he had missed the victorious advance across Germany, he says:
But then, ‘Fate’, or something, had ruled things differently for me. Perhaps for some things I was fortunate …
And that brings us back full circle, because he was indeed fortunate in so many ways, and – to use his own words from the extract from his book quoted at the beginning of this article – it is an “unanswerable question” why he should have been lucky enough to survive when so many others were not. Our family has particular reason to be thankful that he lived, as he touched our lives in a special way; but the truth is that he is still reaching out to the lives of others through the memoir that he would never have written if he had not survived, which, as well as painting a vivid picture of life as it was experienced by a soldier on the Western Front, also serves to remind us of the sacrifice of those who were less fortunate than himself.
A Lancashire Fusilier’s First World War
Norman Hall’s memoir, A Lancashire Fusilier’s First World War, can be purchased from the publisher’s website at P3 Publications for £15.00 plus £3.50 p&p; the book has been published for charitable purposes, and each purchase from the publisher generates a donation of £9.00 to the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress
Copyright © 2023 bmmhs.org – All Rights Reserved
Images © Tricia Rothwell