Untold Stories of the First World War

The Unexpected


Unusual experiences, chance happenings - even a miracle - resulted in some of the most amazing stories to emerge from this project. Who would have expected enemies to become friends after a fire rescue? Or soldiers being saved from gunfire by items they carry with them? Or even, a religious icon in a bottle? One of the ongoing delights of this initiative is that so many of these items not only defy all easy categorisation, but may never have been shown in public before. Instead, they have been kept as family icons; mementoes of a time that has past and people who would never have existed without them.

'My father’s Bible saved his life’

Devout Christian, Kurt Geiler, never went anywhere without his Bible – and that faith paid off in 1917 when the precious leather-bound book saved his life.

In the never-ending trench warfare in North-East France, the German infantryman was sleeping as usual with his Bible underneath his head. Without warning, a direct hit destroyed his dug-out almost completely, wounding and killing many of his comrades.

Geiler was not harmed and managed to get out of the rubble. It was only later when he retrieved his Bible he discovered to his astonishment that the holy book had saved him.

His son, Professor Gottfried Geiler, from Leipzig, said: “A 4cm large piece of shrapnel tore the Bible under his head. It broke through, but not completely, so my father was unharmed and still alive.

“It’s true to say that the Bible, which has been kept ever since as a precious memento in the family, really was his salvation.”

Geiler’s grandson Markus Geiler said it had also been treated as a “family anti-war memorial”.

“I can remember my father leading me to his bookcase, opening it and taking out the Bible which was wrapped in thick paper,” he recalled.

“He said: ‘Look, this is what saved your grandfather’s life.’ It was always something very special when this book was unpacked.”

Saved after two painful days

A British soldier who was left for dead after being shot through both legs on the Somme had his life saved by Allied troops sheltering in the same trench.

John Stafford was just 20 yards from the Germans when he was wounded during the symbolic battle of 1916, which resulted in 420,000 British casualties, including nearly 60,000 on the first day alone.

His daughter, Joan Almond, 85, of Preston, said her father drifted in and out of consciousness for two days before the rescue, which he detailed in a memoir that his family typed-up for safekeeping.

“Thankfully, medics managed to save his badly injured leg - although it did end up 3.5 inches shorter than the other one and he had to wear a surgical boot for the rest of his life.”

But the war took its toll on John, said Joan, who brought in a copy of her father’s recollection of the conflict.

“Dad was a wonderful man,” she said. “But looking back I think the war must have haunted him a lot, especially when you read his account. My mother used to encourage him to write down his experiences and this seemed to have a calming influence.”

Saved by a crucifix and an act of humanity

James Burke always maintained that he owed his life to two things - the metal crucifix he carried in his lapel pocket and a German officer who rescued him from being killed.

The 22-year-old private in the Royal Irish Fusiliers was fighting in St Quentin, Northern France, during the last big enemy offensive on March 21, 1918, when he was shot in the chest by a German sniper.

The bullet ricocheted off the arm of a three-inch cross he always carried in his tunic, causing a penetrating wound just above his heart. But as the Dublin soldier lay injured, he risked being shot again.

“Luckily, a young German officer intervened and carried James to a field hospital where his life was saved,” said Don Mullan, who brought the dented crucifix into the Dublin roadshow.

“James always said he owed his life to his cross and that German officer who showed him a moment of humanity,” added Don, who was left Private Burke’s WW1 items by his son Gary, the Godfather of Don’s wife Margaret.

Enemies Become Friends - Fire Rescue

Two enemies – one English, one German - became lifelong friends after they instinctively rushed into a burning building to stop the fire spreading to a nearby power station.

RAF leading aircraftman Bernard Darley was based at workshops in St Omer, Northern France, when the blaze broke out on September 2, 1919.

Fearful the heat could cause tanks containing oil and petrol above the building to explode, sparking exposed live wires carrying 15,000 volts at the power station, Bernard, and German Prisoner of War Otto Arndt knew they had to act quickly.

A letter from his captain commending Bernard’s bravery states that he tackled the blaze with a fire extinguisher, before dragging in a hose handed through a window by a fireman.

“My grandfather Bernard, and Otto, very bravely fought their way into this burning building at great risk to their own safety to put out the fire,” said Merilyn Jones, from Sutton Coldfield. “I’m very, very proud of his actions.”

The matchbox, which says St Omer on one side and Souvenir from France on the other, was made by Otto for Bernard to celebrate the drama that forged their unlikely friendship.

Inches from non-existence

As William Andrews was stretchered off the Somme having survived a direct hit by a piece of German shrapnel - there was no way he was going to part with the helmet that saved him.

“Give it to me – it saved my life – I’ll want to show it to my grandchildren,” he told the young officer who had suggested throwing it away.

And true to his word, Andrews, who served as a lieutenant, acting captain and major in the Royal Engineers (Sappers), managed to preserve the battered headgear for his descendants.

The helmet, which has a chunk taken out of it, was brought to the Dublin WW1 roadshow by his son Michael Andrews and grandson Vincent Murphy.

Murphy said it had become an iconic family memorial to Andrews’ bravery, which was also recognised by King George V, who pinned the Military Cross to the serviceman’s chest during a ceremony at Buckingham Palacein April 1917.

“If the shrapnel had hit an inch or two lower, we wouldn’t exist,” said Murphy, from Dublin.

Andrews never told his family exactly what happened when he was injured, aged 24, but they have since discovered he spent 10 days in a field hospital before returning to the trenches.

Michael Andrews said the helmet was a “very precious and vivid memento” of his father’s war service. “The fact he survived being hit with such force appears little short of miraculous,” he added.

Teenager turns medic

His only medical experience was doing a bit of First Aid with his local Church Lads Brigade - yet within months of signing up with the Army, Billy Draper was dispatched to France to treat casualties.

Draper, from Haslinton, East Lancashire, was 19 years old in 1915 when he became a private with the 19th Company Royal Army Medical Corps, a unit known locally as “The Whalley Pals”.

Of the estimated 600 young friends and colleagues who joined up, many became casualties. Those that were left continued to commemorate their war years with a reunion dinner every year. The tradition finally stopped when there were only three members remaining.

In an interview with friend Grant Smith, Draper, then aged 101, tells how he witnessed a counter attack on the French village of Peronne, on the Somme. He also recalls how he treated casualties at a Belgium battery post, which doubled as a temporary dressing station, and where he marked “M” on soldiers who had been given morphine.

Draper died from pneumonia in 1997 after falling and breaking his leg.

Smith, of Lytham St Annes, said: “The thing that struck me about Billy was his dry sense of humour. He must’ve seen some terrible sights during the war, yet I am sure his ability to laugh helped carry him through.”