In the trenches – when smoking could save your life

Private Ben Sutherland

Private Ben Sutherland

In the early years of the Great War, Private Ben Sutherland of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders was awaiting his posting to France. 

In civilian life, Private Sutherland had been Stage Manager of the Prince’s Theatre in Glasgow.   Just before he left for his overseas posting, Sutherland was in conversation with his good friend, Tom Byrne, Stage Manager of the Newcastle Empire.  Sutherland asked Byrne for some small memento of himself that he could take with him to France as a keepsake.  Byrne reached into his pocket and gave Sutherland his cigarette case.

In 1917, Sutherland was transferred home as a casualty, suffering from gas poisoning and shrapnel wounds.  He was treated in hospital in Scotland but when he was back on his feet he visited his friend Tom Byrne in Newcastle.  He returned Byrne’s cigarette case – only it was no longer in useable condition.  Embedded in the lid was a razor sharp fragment of shrapnel (below).  Had the shrapnel not struck the cigarette case in Sutherland’s breast pocket it would certainly have pierced his chest and may well have reached his heart.  Sutherland owed his life to his friend’s gift.

The cigarette case that saved Private Sutherland's life

The cigarette case that saved Private Sutherland’s life

Sutherland also explained to Byrne that, whilst convalescing in Scotland, he had offered the damaged cigarette case as a raffle prize to raise funds for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service, the charitable institution that had treated him.  The winner of the raffle had returned the case to him, so he had raffled it again.  Again the cigarette case was given back by the winner.  This had happened several times, raising over £300 – well over £12,000 in today’s money – before Sutherland decided to keep the case and return it to his friend.

A ticket from the fund-raising raffle

A ticket from the fund-raising raffle

It seems a remarkable chance that a cigarette case should save a soldier’s life in this way.  If he realised immediately what had happened, Sutherland must have viewed himself as blessed.  Indeed, depending on the extent of his other wounds, he may even have felt the grim sense of satisfaction described by Robert Graves in his First World War memoir, Goodbye To All That, that he had got what was known as a “cushy one” – wounds serious enough to mean he would be invalided out but not severe enough to threaten his life.  Oddly though, Sutherland’s story does not seem an unfamiliar one.  As well as cigarette cases, one reads of pocket watches and bibles that also stopped shrapnel or bullets.

But surely it was miraculously good luck for Sutherland’s life to be saved in this way?  In fact, when you really think about it, you can see that what happened to Sutherland would probably would not have been that uncommon.  The left breast pocket is the logical place for a right-handed man to keep his watch, his bible or his cigarette case.  More than one and a half million British soldiers were wounded in the First World War.  It seems probable that many tens of thousands-  if not hundreds of thousands – of these would have been struck in the chest.  It is not surprising therefore that at least some were saved by whatever item they happened to have in their left breast packet on the day.

The great thing here is that we have not just the documentary evidence, but the very cigarette case with the shrapnel still stuck tight nearly a century later.  I bought the collection at auction earlier this year.

Ben Sutherland must have lain in his hospital bed in Scotland touching this little shard of metal again and again, barely believing his luck and maybe asking, as many survivors of traumatic incidents are known to ask, “Why was I spared when others were not?”


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