Lucky Escapes



Jim Longson of the Border Regiment

In his book "An Airborne Odyssey", Jim Longson of the Border Regiment describes a brush with death during the battle for Arnhem.

" of my gun team came running towards my trench and jumped in. He apologised for having left us on the previous night, but said his absence had been unavoidable. He was so desperately hungry that he had been forced to search for food. I told him to forget it. Then he said, 'I've brought you a bottle of rum I found in a house across the way'. I took it from him and, as I bent down to put it in the trench, a mortar bomb landed behind me. I could see red spots on my hands and thought with disappointment that the bottle had been broken, but on looking up I saw the lad falling towards me. A piece of shrapnel had hit him right between the eyes and blood was squirting out, all over my hands. Had I not bent down to put the bottle in the trench, the shrapnel would have hit me in the back of the head."


Mary Ludwig Hays

Mary Ludwig Hays (an artillery Sergeant's wife) was known to the troops as 'Molly Pitcher' because she carried water to them during the fighting. Her husband was wounded at the Battle of Monmouth Court House 1777, and she took his place..........

'while in the act of reaching for a cartridge and having one foot as far from the other as she could step, a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat. Looking at it with apparent unconcern, she observed that it was lucky that it did not pass higher, for in that case it might have carried away something else, and then she continued upon her occupation.'


Ensign Frank

from Trevor at Waterloo Battlefield Tours

You wouldn’t have thought that hiding under a bed to avoid detection by the French had been an option at Waterloo. When the French stormed and captured the farm of La Haye Saint, Ensign Frank of the King’s German Legion did exactly that. Here is how two of Frank’s fellow officers describe the very incident :-

“Frank……..had already been wounded: the first man that attacked him he ran through with his sabre, but at the same moment, his arm was broken by a ball from another; nevertheless he reached a bed room, and succeeded in concealing himself under a bed. Two of our men also took refuge in the same place, but the French followed close at their heels, crying, “Pas de pardon a ces B… Verts!”, and shot them before his face; Frank had himself the good luck to remain undiscovered until the place fell into our hands.”   
Major George Baring

“This officer (Ensign Frank) got two shots, and ran into a room, where he lay behind a bed all the time they had possession of the house; sometimes the room was full of them, and some wounded soldiers of ours who cried out “pardon” were shot, the monsters saying, ‘Take that for the fine defence you have made.’”
Lieutenant George Drummond Graeme


Captain Alexander Cavalie Mercer

from Trevor at Waterloo Battlefield Tours

"Lieutenant Breton, who had already lost two horses and had mounted a troop horse, was conversing with me...... As his horse stood at right angles to mine, the poor jaded animal dozingly rested its muzzle on my thigh; whilst I, the better to hear amidst the infernal din, leant forward resting my arm between his ears. In this attitude a cannon-shot smashed the horse's head to atoms. The headless trunk sank to the ground."


Private Thomas Morris

from Trevor at Waterloo Battlefield Tours

"Our situation now was truly awful; our men were falling by dozens with every fire. About this time also a large shell fell just in front of us, and while the fuse was burning out, we were wondering how many of us it would destroy. When it burst, about seventeen men were either killed or wounded by it; the portion which came to my share, was a piece of rough cast iron, about the size of a horse bean, which took up its lodging in my left cheek; the blood ran copiously down my clothes, and made me rather uncomfortable."


Vice-Admiral Beatty

During the Reconquest of the Sudan, Kitchener's Desert Army was supported by gun-boats on the Nile. Difficulties were experienced when they tried to ascend the Fourth Cataract of the Nile. An extract from Bryan Perrett's book 'Gunboat!' describes the events of 5th August 1897:

Another 400 tribesmen were recruited and that afternoon El Teb tried the ascent. The same thing happened (another gunboat had failed the ascent earlier the same day), but this time the gunboat capsized, flinging Lieutenant Beatty (who would go on to command the battlecruiser fleet at the Battle of Jutland) and his crew into the rushing water. All save three were picked up downstream by the Tamai. One man was known to have drowned but the fate of two more remained uncertain. Keel uppermost, El Teb floated down the river until she became trapped between two rocks. A party reached the wreck to see whether she could be salvaged and was about to leave when knocking was heard from within the hull. Tools were brought and a plate removed from the keel. Somewhat battered by their ordeal and blinking, the two missing men, an engineer and a stoker, emerged from total darkness into brilliant sunshine.


Captain Albert Ball

from Trevor at Waterloo Battlefield Tours

Not many men survived a combat engagement with Captain Albert Ball, V.C., D.S.O. and 2 bars, M.C. In the fifteen months before his untimely death, aged 20, Ball accounted for over 40 enemy aircraft. Biographer Chaz Bowyer describes an extremely lucky escape by one of Ball's opponents, observer Leutnant Bohne :-

"....Ball manoeuvred underneath the nearest Roland and, with the Lewis gun slanted upwards, poured a complete drum of bullets (50 rounds) into it at 20 yards, turned away to replace the empty drum, then attacked again, firing half of the second drum. The Roland fell into a steep dive, its pilot, Leutnant Joachim von Arnim, dead at his controls, and its observer, Leutnant Bohne struggling manfully to gain control of the stricken machine. As the aircraft came to earth Bohne finally succeeded in setting the Roland down in a safe landing."


Waterloo Escapes

from Trevor at Waterloo Battlefield Tours

At the height of the action at the Battle of Waterloo numerous men had remarkable escapes from death or serious injury. Here are three of them:

Sergeant John Flesh of the 16th Light Dragoons was hit on the breast by a musket ball and declared himself killed, but a moment later it rolled out of his overalls. It was a spent shot which had enough force to pierce his jacket but not his body. Five minutes later he was hit by another spent ball which caused him no injury either.

Lieutenant Edward Peters of the 7th Hussars was hit on the breast by a canister shot, much larger than a musket ball, which would have killed him had its momentum not been decreased by smashing his sword on the way through.

Sir George Scovell, AQMG, had just raised his arm to prevent his hat from falling off when a roundshot carried away the armpit of his coat, causing no injury to himself. Had he not raised his arm, the shot would have carried off his shoulder and arm and caused certain death.


Father William Doyle

Father William Doyle SJ MC, of the Royal Dublin Fusliers, 16th Irish Division, describes a lucky escape he had in May 1916. He was later killed at the Battle of Langemarck, during the the Third Battle of Ypres, June 1917 - November 1917.

"I was standing in a trench, quite a long distance from the firing line, a spot almost as safe as Dalkey (his home village) itself, talking to some of my men when we heard in the distance the scream of a shell......none of us had calculated that this gentleman had made up his mind to drop into the trench itself, a couple of paces from where I stood. What really took place in the next ten seconds I cannot say. I was conscious of a terrific explosion and the thud of falling stones and debris. I thought the drums of my ears were split by the crash, and I believe I was knocked down by the concussion, but when I jumped to my feet I found that the two men who had been standing at my left hand, the side the shell fell, were stretched on the ground dead, though I think I had time to give them absolution and anoint them. The poor fellow on my right was lying badly wounded in the head; but I myself , though a bit stunned and dazed by the suddenness of the whole thing, was absolutely untouched, though covered with dirt and blood."  


Lieutenant George E. Dixon

Lieutenant George Dixon was the commander of the confederate submarine, the Hunley (see the American Civil War section for the story of the Hunley).

Early in the war, in Mobile, Alabama, Queenie Bennett (Dixon’s fiancée) gave him a $20 gold piece. Whilst at Shiloh, a Union bullet penetrated his trouser pocket and struck the coin. The impact left the gold piece shaped like a bell, with the bullet embedded in it. If it wasn’t for that coin, he probably would have died on the battlefield and the Hunley might never have made history. He would carry that coin the rest of his life, and would be seen from time-to-time fingering the “good luck” piece and memory of his lost love.

The actual coin has since been found on the wreck of the Hunley,  discovered in 1995.


Lieutenant Lloyd Williams

During the advance of the 24th Foot at Chillianwallah (14th January 1849, second Sikh War), Lieutenant Lloyd Williams suffered twenty three sword and lance wounds, a fractured skull and had his left hand severed. Astonishingly, he survived this ordeal.


Trooper Patrick Fowler

from Trevor at Waterloo Battlefield Tours

To avoid detection by the Germans, Trooper Patrick Fowler of the 11th Hussars hid inside a wardrobe behind enemy lines for nearly four years! He was cut off from his regiment at Le Cateau in 1914 and was eventually taken in by Frenchwoman, Madame Belmont-Gobert. At her farmhouse he was concealed inside a squat wardrobe, less than 6’ high. Two weeks later eight German soldiers were billeted in the house. They spent much of their time drinking coffee and gossiping in the very room where Fowler’s wardrobe was standing. Later the Germans required the whole house, so Madame Belmont-Gobert was forced to move to a small cottage. A German soldier even helped to move the wardrobe with Fowler still inside it to the cottage. Finally when Allied troops reoccupied the village in October 1918, Fowler emerged and, by coincidence, one of the first men he saw was one of his old officers from the 11th Hussars. Madame Belmont-Gobert was decorated for her bravery – she would have faced dire consequences if found harbouring a British soldier. The very wardrobe in which Fowler hid (pictured below) is now an exhibit in the Regimental museum in Winchester.


Not the Sharpest Tool in the Box!

At the siege of Mons in 1744 a French soldier picked up what he believed to be solid shot and he clung to it even though others shouted to him that it was a bomb, and that he must escape. The charge took fire and the bomb exploded in his hands. In a split second he was as dusky as a chimney sweep. His uniform and hair were burnt and his skin was a little singed. He was otherwise intact, and by singular good fortune the splinters left him unscathed.


Sergeant-Major Marshall, 6th Dragoons (Inniskilling)

This extract is taken from Mark Adkin's indispensable book 'The Waterloo Companion'.

Marshall was a troop sergeant-major in the 6th Dragoons who charged with the Union Brigade, smashed through Donzelot's division and careered on up to the French 'Grand Battery'. During the counterattack by Farine's cuirassiers a sword blow broke Marshall's left arm. As he rode on, a lance thrust pierced his side and he felt two more blows, one of which shattered his right thigh. He fell from his horse and briefly lost consciousness. When he came round horses were galloping wildly around and over him. He lay hugging his wounds and feigning death for several minutes until he spotted a riderless horse nearby. He dragged himself towards it. As he caught hold of a stirrup to pull himself up he was cut down from behind with a final swipe from a sword. From then on he lay still, actually in among the French artillery position. Marshall, losing blood, in great pain drifted in and out of consciousness while the French guns fired over him. He was so close to the artillery that at one time a gunner rested his foot on Marshall while he reloaded. He was to survive his nineteen wounds and three nights on the battlefield, living for another ten years.


Sergeant William Lawrence

Sergeant William Lawrence, who fought in the ranks of the 40th Foot at Waterloo, describes a brush with death :-

" enemy shell cut our deputy sergeant major in two, then went on to take off the head of William Hooper, one of my grenadiers. It exploded in the rear no more than a yard from me, the impact hurling me six feet into the air. The tail of my sash was completely burned off and the handle of my sword was singed black, but fortunately the only injury it did me was to take a small piece of skin off the side of my face. Another narrow escape."


Captain Alexander Cavalie Mercer, Royal Horse Artillery

“…through the smoke a black speck caught my eye, and I instantly knew what it was. The conviction that one never sees a shot coming towards you unless directly in its line flashed across my mind, together with the certainty that my doom was sealed. I had barely time to exclaim “Here it is then!” – … whush it went past my face, striking the point of my pelisse collar."


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