A case of smoking saving a life

The cigarette case that belonged to Harry Cawte.

The cigarette case that belonged to Harry Cawte.

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You may remember a story I wrote some time ago about a man who was shot twice with the same bullet in the Korean War.

I recently interviewed James Cawte of Buckland, Portsmouth, whose late father Harry had a similar brush with death in the First World War. He was so close to death it makes one wonder what force decides who dies and who lives.

Four men from the Machine Gun Corps with Harry Cawte bottom right.'They might all have been Portsmouth men.

Four men from the Machine Gun Corps with Harry Cawte bottom right.'They might all have been Portsmouth men.

Harry Cawte was one of four brothers and was always known as Spike. He lived at 13, Flathouse Road, Mile End, Portsmouth, and was married to Lilian. They had two children Lilly and Harry, but he was always called Boy.

Harry worked for the Portsmouth Gas and Coke Company. As lads, he and his brothers lived in Stanley Street, Stamshaw.

When colliers from the north of England moored at Flathouse Quay a crane would lift all the coal from the hold of the ships. The grab could not get to the sides of the hold so it was Harry’s job to work below shovelling the coal into the middle so the crane-grab could lift the remaining coal from the hold.

At the outbreak of the First World War Harry, then 27, decided to join up. He volunteered and joined the Hampshire Regiment.

William Cawte  when serving on HMY Hersilia 1916.

William Cawte when serving on HMY Hersilia 1916.

He was in the thick of it, fighting at Ypres and on the Somme and he was twice reported missing presumed dead.

Near the end of the war he ended up fighting in northern Italy and fought at the Battle of Asiago.

One day while in action at Ypres a bullet, coming in from the left, missed Harry by an inch actually striking a cigarette case that was in his tunic’s left breast pocket.

The bullet then passed across his chest and through the right sleeve of his tunic. If he had been a step further forward the bullet would have passed through him. His son James still has the cigarette case complete with bullet hole (pictured).

James Cawte, named after an uncle he never met who died during the Great War.

James Cawte, named after an uncle he never met who died during the Great War.

I am glad to report that Harry made it home and he and his wife had another two children, Louisa and James.

Another brother William served in the navy and was on the hired yacht Zaida which was mined and sunk off the Turkish coast.

Some survivors were taken from the water and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp where four of them died. William was one of them, dying on August 17, 1916.

Another brother, Charles, also volunteered and joined the army but James does not know what happened to him.

The remaining brother was James who also volunteered and served with the Pioneer Corps in a so-called Special Company comprising 208 officers and 5,306 men.

They were responsible for handling gas – a very dangerous occupation for the gas canisters were fired from Stokes mortars and if the wind direction changed while the operation was in progress it was not a good place to be.

James died though illness on August 8, 1917.

Perhaps he died from dealing with the gas or because of the ravages of four years in the trenches. He is remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial in the Ypres Salient on the Western Front.

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