I am often struck when reading the recollections of soldiers in the First World War how much luck, providence, fate – call it what you will – seems to factor in their accounts. As such the following story caught my eye.
At the end of October 1917 the Thanet Advertiser ran an article where Second Lieutenant William Munday recounted how his cigarette case saved his life. Munday was a career soldier, having joined the Dragoon Guards aged 16 and serving 14 years with the regiment prior to receiving a commission to the 7th Buffs.
At the end of September 1917 the battalion was in camp at St. Jan-ter-Biezen, three miles west of Poperinghe, undergoing a period of training. The battalion war diary records that at 7.20pm on 29th September a solitary aeroplane dropped four bombs on the camp, killing 27 men and wounding a further 63.
Munday wrote home that he had been standing in the mess tent before dinner, talking to two fellow officers. The explosion of the bombs hurled him across the tent and when he extricated himself from the debris he found one of the officers was dead (Second Lieutenant Ralph Mead, aged 19) and the other wounded. Munday had been saved by his cigarette case in the left breast pocket of his tunic, which had been pierced by a bomb fragment.
The men killed in the raid were buried side by side the following day at Nine Elms British Cemetery, just two miles from the site of the camp, where they lay in plots II and III.
As an aside, William Munday was to play a minor role in another aspect of the conflict. By the end of the war he was the Deputy Assistant Provost Marshal for Calais, a position he held until 1922. In November 1918 a member of the Chinese Labour Corps, Chang Ju Chih, murdered a woman and her children. He went on the run and was arrested in April 1919, subsequently escaped, and was re-arrested in February 1920. For his crime he was sentenced to death. He spent his last night in the company of William Munday, who also oversaw the firing squad on 14th February 1920. However the salvo from the firing squad did not kill Chang Ju Chih, and Munday was forced to administer a coup de grace with his pistol. Chang Ju Chih lies in Les Baraques Military Cemetery outside Calais, one of the last servicemen to be ‘shot at dawn’.
William Munday’s medals are now held by the National Army Museum – as is the cigarette case that saved his life, still containing the piece of shrapnel that it stopped.