Saved by a cigarette case: wife's loving gift protected husband from bullet in WWI

Posted on 05/11/2019 in Press Coverage

A wife’s loving gift given to her husband more than a century ago is thought to have saved his life during the First World War.

A dented and damaged silver cigarette case, which appears to have taken the full force of bullet, has been unearthed by Hansons Auctioneers – and an ageing note tucked inside reveals its secret.

It reads, ‘This silver cigarette case was given by my mother to my father during the 1914-18 war. He carried it with him in the trenches in his breast pocket where it was struck by a spent bullet. He was unharmed – JE Lytle’.

Derbyshire-born Sherwood Forester Second-Lieutenant William Alexander Lytle, who earned a Military Cross for bravery at the age of 21, was given the cigarette case by his wife, Bertha Elizabeth Lytle. The pair married in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, in October 1916.

Adrian Stevenson, militaria expert at Hansons, said: “Many soldiers kept hard objects in the breast pockets of their army uniforms in a bid to protect themselves from enemy fire. Cigarette cases, shaving mirrors and pocket Bibles were popular.

“A bullet potentially heading for the heart could be stopped in its tracks by objects such as this, particularly if it was reaching the end of its trajectory

“Consequently, these objects have gained historical significance. They provide us with an insight into how young men who lived a century ago dealt with the grave dangers faced in the trenches in the war to end all wars.”

In March, a penny which saved a First World War soldier’s life – kept in his breast pocket and brutally bent by a bullet - sold for £4,500 from an estimate of £30-£50 at Hansons.

Mr Stevenson said: “This latest find emerged by chance. I had assessed an impressive set of wartime medals earned by Second-Lieutenant William Alexander Lytle from Bakewell.

“They were initially heading into our November Medals and Militaria Auction with a guide price of £800- £1,000. However, after cataloguing the items, I decided to ask the family if they had a picture of William.

“Happily, they found one and, during their search, came across his battered silver cigarette case. It had taken the full force of a bullet – all explained in the note tucked inside.

“The family doubted it was worth anything but the addition of the cigarette case to the medals enabled me to increase the guide price to £1,000-£2,000.”

The discovery, together with a photo of William taken when he was 22 years old at rest billets in France in April, 1916, bring his story to life. A note with the picture reveals that it was taken eight months before he married – and that at the age of 21 he received a Military Cross for bravery.

A newspaper cutting from the Derbyshire Advertiser, dated December 24, 1915, reported on the fact that Second-Lieut Lytle of the 1/6th Battalion Notts & Derbyshire Regiment, Sherwood Foresters, had been awarded a Military Cross.

This was given ‘for excellent work on several occasions, notably on November 26, 1915, near Boar’s Head Trench. He organised and carried out a bomb attack with great ability and collected valuable information regarding the enemy.

‘He was finally forced to withdraw before superior numbers but not before he had thrown 95 bombs (grenades) and inflicted serious loss on the Germans. He showed great judgement in withdrawing his casualties, being only one man missing and three wounded. Second-Lieut Lytle has shown a total disregard for danger and leads his grenadiers with great coolness’.

Mr Stevenson said: “When you consider William’s age when he carried out these actions, it brings home the immense bravery of a generation of young men who took up arms for our country. Some 886,000 British military personal lost their lives in the First World War. Thousands more survived but suffered terrible injuries and mental anguish.”

As well as his Military Cross, Second-Lieut Lytle, who was born in December 1893, collected a War Medal, Victory Medal, World War Two Defence Medal, War Medal 1939-45 and Edward VII Volunteer Long Service Medal.

Despite numerous brushes with death during armed combat, he went on to live until the age of 80, passing away in October, 1974. His wife, who was born in 1891, died in Ashbourne at the age of 91 in 1983.

Mr Stevenson said: “William fought in two world wars – he gave his all for us all. It’s wonderful to think that a silver cigarette case, a gift given with love from his wife, may well have saved his life.”

Second-Lieut Lytle’s medals and silver cigarette case will be sold on November 22 in a Medals and Militaria Auction at Hansons, Heage Lane, Etwall, Derbyshire DE65 6LS. To find out more, or to arrange a free militaria valuation, email [email protected].