Two escapes from death for a Luton soldier at the front were revealed in an interview given by Rifleman Leonard Butcher while on leave at his home in Ashburnham Road, Luton. He had joined the 12th Batt. County of London Regiment (Territorials) at the outbreak of war, and left with the regiment for Belgium on December 24th. Some weeks afterwards (at the beginning of February) he was in the firing line at Ypres, and it was then his terrible experiences began.
The weather was very bad at the time, and Rifleman Butcher states that they had to march through mud and water which actually came up to the waist. The ground was in a terrible state and they marched (or waded) through three miles of this to the trenches. These Mr Butcher described as "mud ponds," and they had to cut their greatcoats short to move about.
"I was in the trenches for ten days at a stretch," he went on. "We were to have been relieved, but the reinforcements, through some unforeseen mishap, did not arrive, and we went another seven days with scarcely any food. It was only the wonderful spirit of the men which kept us going. I don't know how we did it.
"In the middle of February I had my first escape from death. One nigh we had a counter attack. It was moonlight and very clear, and we got an order to charge the German trenches. Before we got to the barbed wire entanglements we found that our barbed wire cutters had been shot, and the officers ordered us to get over it as best we could. I had rather long legs and I did jump for it, and cleared the wire as best I could. But I caught my right foot and I must have fallen a considerable distance.
"You can imagine how I lay in the deep mud. Then to my horror I saw one of the Prussian Guards, who are over six feet tall, running at me with his bayonet fixed as I lay helpless. I shall never forget the sensation of the nearness of death.
"A lump came into my throat. The Prussian got to within ten yards of me, when suddenly a shot from one of my comrades toppled the Prussian over like a nine-pin, and he lay dead five yards from me. I don't know who shot that Prussian, but I would like to meet him. Anyhow, we captured the trenches, but we lost a lot of men.
"I had another miraculous escape from death on March 4th. About 7.30 am the Germans startred a terrific bombardment of our trenches, and one of the shells dropped just in front of us, and the men in the trench in front had to retire into our trench.
"Fifteen men men out of 18 men in that trench were killed outright, and I and two others were wounded. The other two died the same day. I was at the right hand side of the trench, and the shrapnel caught my hip. I crawled out and I lay there from 8.30 in the morning until half an hour after midnight, and managed to wrap my leg in my fur coat as I lay in the open field behind the trenches.
"I was in just the same danger then because the shells were dropping all around me. Luckily I was not killed, and later I was carried to the hospital. The other men had been blown to pieces, one man being blown into two halves, and that was a common sight.
"I was subsequently in hospital at Havre, and from there I came to England last week, and have been in a Leeds hospital. I am now on leave, but I can only just get about."
Describing German outrages, Rifleman Butcher said that on one occasion they wer lying in wait for the Germans. The Germans came and rushed through a cowering, frightened group of women and children, killing them right and left. "But they suffered for it," said Mr Butcher. "Those Germans were killed except 60 whom we took prisoner. Such sights we saw at times, and they are too horrible to write about.
"Ypres is quite a heap of ruins, for houses, and families as well, have been blown to bits. Many of the prisoners we took recently were boys of from 16 to 17 years of age, and they seemed anxious to be taken prisoners."
Rifleman Butcher has now earned his corporal's stripes and will be promoted on rejoining his regiment.
[Saturday Telegraph, March 27th, 1915]