Saturday 17 November 2018

'Not all people are bad': A lesson from the 1918 Spring Offensive

In France of March 1918, a young Dublin soldier's life was saved by a metal crucifix that intercepted a bullet, and by the kindness of a young German ­officer. Don Mullan recalls his story

Prisoners of war: A German soldier guides several British troops, including a few of the injured, in Saint-Quentin, France during the Spring Offensive of March 1918. Photo: Getty
Prisoners of war: A German soldier guides several British troops, including a few of the injured, in Saint-Quentin, France during the Spring Offensive of March 1918. Photo: Getty
No bitterness: Burke with his wife Teresa and baby daughter Ethna after the Great War
A maquette by Andrew Edwards depicting the wounded Burke being lifted by an anonymous young German officer, which stands at the Irish soldier's graveside
Saviour: The crucifix that saved James Burke's life with indent from a bullet above Christ's left hand

Above the left hand of the crucified Christ, the indent on the crossbeam of the four-inch metal crucifix carries the imprint of the 1918 Spring Offensive.

The bullet, fired by a German stormtrooper, rapidly advancing from the environs of the city of Saint-Quentin, France, was heading straight for the heart of Private James Burke, a 24-year old Dubliner, born in Charlemont Street, who had joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers in July 1915.

The crucifix bears testimony to the many campaigns that James Burke had, until then, survived: the Battles of Albert and Le Transloy in 1916; the 1st and 3rd Battles of the Scarpe in 1917; and now, the impending German Spring Offensive, launched on March 21, 1918.

Before leaving for the war, Burke's mother gave James, her third son, the crucifix which he carried in the left breast pocket of his tunic. The body of the crucified Christ is worn smooth like a worry stone, rubbed, no doubt, by the right thumb of Private Burke throughout the three years he served along the Western Front.

No bitterness: Burke with his wife Teresa and baby daughter Ethna after the Great War
No bitterness: Burke with his wife Teresa and baby daughter Ethna after the Great War

One cannot even begin to imagine what Burke and his comrades endured during a global conflict fought on an industrial scale. And the German Spring Offensive, or Kaiserschlacht (the Kaiser's Battle), promised to be the mother of all battles.

The German campaign had won a major victory with the Russian surrender in December 1917, freeing 50 divisions for urgent deployment from the Eastern to the Western Front. The urgency was accelerated by the decision by President Woodrow Wilson to commit US forces to the war, despite having won a second term on a neutrality ticket and the original 'America First' presidential slogan. German U-boats in the Atlantic, however, and an intercepted telegram from Germany to Mexico, caused a U-turn in Wilson's stance.

The sinking of the Lusitania, 18km off the Old Head of Kinsale in 1915, with the loss of almost 1,200 lives, including 128 US citizens, followed by the sinking of several US merchant navy ships, began to change American public opinion. The interception by the British of a telegram sent by the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German Ambassador to Mexico in January 1917, however, definitively turned the tide.

Zimmerman provocatively proposed an alliance between Germany and Mexico, offering to support Mexico in a military campaign against the United States to regain the almost one-third of its territory lost during the Mexican-American War (1846-48), which included California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. In addition, Germany was seeking the support of Mexico in convincing the Empire of Japan to join the war on the side of Germany and the Central Powers.

On March 1, 1917, just five days after receiving the contents of the telegram from the British, President Wilson released it to the national press. Public opinion swung in favour of America's entry into the war.

The logistics of moving the troops and hardware of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) across the Atlantic Ocean took time and by June 1917, only 14,000 US troops had arrived in France. But with more troops and artillery arriving, Germany focused on capitalising on the Russian surrender.

A maquette by Andrew Edwards depicting the wounded Burke being lifted by an anonymous young German officer, which stands at the Irish soldier's graveside
A maquette by Andrew Edwards depicting the wounded Burke being lifted by an anonymous young German officer, which stands at the Irish soldier's graveside

As the harsh winter of 1918 passed, Germany and its allies began to mobilise their forces for one final push aimed at ending the war before the Americans could make a difference.

Cruel cacophony

British and French reconnaissance observed a massive mobilisation throughout February and March 1918 with German troops being moved along the length of the front. Similarly, German reconnaissance convinced General Erich Ludendorff that the British line was most vulnerable in territories held by the Fifth Army, including the Somme valley.

As darkness fell on the evening of March 20, 1918, Private Burke and his comrades, some 50km south east of the Somme, and less than five from the German stronghold of Saint-Quentin, could hear the noise of heavy artillery being moved into position. Within hours he was in the vortex of the biggest offensive since the war began.

Private Burke was in a forward position, defending a bridge, and as he and his comrades waited for the expected attack, one can imagine him fearfully and prayerfully holding the metal crucifix in his hand. At 4.40am, all hell broke loose. Over 50 shells per second rained down upon the British Expeditionary Forces, with the forward trenches trying to cope with the whining and hissing sounds of exploding bombs releasing mustard, chlorine and tear gas.

The cruel cacophony of raining brutality continued for five hours during which an estimated 3.5 million shells peppered 240 sq km of the Western Front. It was one of the heaviest artillery bombardments in history. Alongside Private Burke in the 36th Ulster Division were surviving veterans of the Battle of the Somme, many of them Ulster Protestants. They knew, as they peered through their gas masks, that the sudden silence at 9.40am meant an impending attack of German infantry, bolstered now by half a million troops redeployed from the Eastern Front.

Saviour: The crucifix that saved James Burke's life with indent from a bullet above Christ's left hand
Saviour: The crucifix that saved James Burke's life with indent from a bullet above Christ's left hand

The onslaught was merciless. Highly trained elite stormtroopers, most carrying only individual weapons and reserve ammunition, led the charge, with accompanying flame throwers causing additional terror. Dense fog and the lingering smoke of exploding artillery gave the stormtroopers the advantage of surprise. Sometime around mid-morning, James Burke took a direct hit. The bullet, heading straight for his heart, ricocheted off the metal crucifix, exploding into his left shoulder blade, clawing bone and sinew through ruptured flesh. The gaping exit wound was massive. Young Burke collapsed into a shell hole, losing consciousness.

The force and speed of the attack quickly overwhelmed the British and by early afternoon they were in full retreat, leaving dead and injured behind. By the end of March 21, British casualties number 38,500, half of whom were captured. Thursday, March 21, 1918, remains the second worst day in British military history, surpassed only by the first day of the Somme Offensive.

In the first 16 days of the Spring Offensive, the German army captured 1,200 square miles, nine times more than the Allies had taken during the entire Battle of the Somme. The territorial advance put German forces just 120km from Paris and within firing distance. 183 shells, fired from three Krupps cannons, the world's largest, hit the French capital.

German gains, however, were achieved with heavy and irreplaceable losses. The British and French suffered almost quarter of a million casualties, all of which could be replaced, especially with a million American troops and hardware arriving on European territory. German losses were almost equal, but with few replacements. Furthermore, forward troops were left waiting too long on supplies that eventually reversed their advantage, providing the Allies with valuable recovery time.

Some 37,000 British soldiers died during the 16 days of the Spring Offensive. 23,000 lie in unnamed graves, 'Known Unto God'. 7,512 fell during the first day, with 10,000 wounded. Among them, 24-year-old James Burke.

Burke was listed as Missing in Action by the British Red Cross. However, the anguish of his family was appeased when, in the summer of 1918, a German postcard, postmarked 'Stendal', arrived in Dublin, dated April 4, 1918, informing his mother that he was a prisoner of war in Germany. It would be a full year before he was repatriated back to Ireland.

James Burke returned with a remarkable story of humanity in the aftermath of his wounding.

He lay, unable to move, in the shell hole for two days. As the offensive progressed westwards, German soldiers at the rear began to comb through conquered territory, mopping up small contingents of resistance, carrying out summary executions, taking prisoners and retrieving military hardware and ammunition that could be utilised. Young Burke told his family that two German soldiers found him and he feared they were about to kill him when a young German officer cried 'halt'. According to his family, the young officer ordered the soldiers to retreat and in a scene reminiscent of the parable of the Good Samaritan, he lifted the young Dubliner and carried him to a field hospital where his wounds were treated. Amongst the memorabilia that James Burke carried back from the war is a small German lapel badge. One wonders if it was given to him by the young officer.

Despite having been wounded by a German stormtrooper and having lived out the remainder of the war as a PoW, Burke carried no bitterness towards the soldiers he fought against nor the German people. He returned to Dublin a wounded man, with no toenails from the soggy coldness of the trenches and with a bad chest due to exposure to chemical weapons.

He gave up a secure job at the Princess Cinema in Rathmines to join the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Upon his return, he found employment as chief usher at the DeLuxe Cinema on Dublin's Camden Street where he happily worked for the remainder of his life. The facade of the DeLuxe Cinema remains intact to this day.

Across the road in a confectionery shop, he first met and eventually married Teresa O'Connor from No 4 Ranelagh Road, where they set up their home. They had two children, Ethna (born April 22, 1929) and Gary (my wife Margaret's godfather, born July 14, 1937).

Missing crucifix

James died on January 22, 1953, aged 57. Before he died, he asked his teenage son Gary to promise he'd take care of his mother and his eldest sister. It was a promise Gary kept until his own death on March 7, 2003.

Gary offered me his father's war medals and memorabilia. He was, however, distressed, that he could not find the metal crucifix that had helped save his father's life.

On Good Friday, April 18, 2003, I was walking in the Dublin mountains when I received a call from Gary's friend, Matt Long, who asked me if I could come to Ranelagh Road to help clear some heavy furniture from Gary's house. As we went through the contents of a chest of drawers, we happened upon an envelope which we opened. Out fell the metal crucifix with the indent from the bullet fired during the German Spring Offensive.

The lesson Gary Burke learned from his wounded WWI veteran father, Private James Burke, he passed on to me on St Stephen's Day 2002, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

"Not all people are bad... my dad lived because there was a German officer. If he wasn't there... I wouldn't be here today."

It is my hope that one day, a triple statue, made by my friend, the Anglo-Irish artist Andrew Edwards, might find a place in Dublin, Berlin and Saint-Quentin, depicting the wounded James Burke being lifted by the anonymous young German officer. A monumental reminder that despite the carnage and brutality of war, moments of hope and humanity become the crack that breaks prejudice and hatred.

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