A Pocket Full of Change

by Graham Kirby

A soldier serving with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) during the First World War was fortunate to have with him a number of coins in his pocket.

The occasion was the battle of Cambrai which involved a British attack followed by the biggest German counter attack upon the BEF since 1914.

The town of Cambria, in the department of Nord, France, was an important supply point for the Hindenburg line and capture of the town, and the nearby Bourlon Ridge, would threaten the rear of the German line to the north.

The battle took place between 17th November and 7th December 1917 on the western front. It was the first large-scale effective use of tanks for a military offensive.

During the hostilities, a Lieutenant Harold Kidd May serving with the 5th Berkshire Regiment, was shot in the thigh. The full force of the bullet struck the coins presumably preventing more serious injury.

The illustrations, above and below, clearly show the extent of the damage, although individual coin types can still be identified:

  • An English penny of Edward VII with Britannia visible and dated 1910.
  • A young head Queen Victoria silver florin (2/-) of gothic design from the period 1851-87.
  • A French silver 1 franc showing a leafy branch dividing denomination and the date of 1916.
  • A well-circulated French silver 1 franc of Napoleon III dated 1866; the crown and mantled arms are barely visible.
The final item was a metal tag or club pass, some of the letters of which were impressed into the reverse of the 1916 franc when the bullet impacted.

When I was visiting a friend in Kidlington, the late Cicely Lee, on learning of my interest in coins she kindly arranged for me to view, identify, and photograph these items. Apparently, Lieutenant May returned home on crutches. It is not recorded how many coins he had with him.

Upon recently re-visiting the story there was more to be told.

Born on 20th March 1898 in Holywood, Co. Down, Harold was a member of the Belfast University Contingent of the Officers' Training Corps and received a commission as Second Lieutenant in the Royal Berkshire Regiment on 26th August 1915.

He was sent to the front in April 1916 and wounded the following June. He was reported missing on the 3rd July at the Battle of the Somme but reappeared unhurt a few days later. In the August he was promoted to Lieutenant. During October he was wounded in the shoulder.

Subsequently, in February 1918 he was awarded the Military Cross, the citation published in Supplement to the London Gazette of July records:

' For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in command of a company in an attack. He moved about fearlessly under heavy machine gun fire, directing the advance. When the advance was held up he went forward to reconnoitre, and then directed his platoon to their objectives. He superintended the consolidation with great energy, and set his men a splendid example throughout.'

He was wounded for the third time on 1st December 1917, but more seriously, receiving gunshot wounds to both legs. This provides more detail to add to our first unfolding account of the pocket full of change. A further local link is that he was transferred to England for treatment at a hospital in Oxford.



SEE ALSO by Graham Kirby:
• A Pocket Full of Change
• Old Money
• Lockdown Medal

Graham Kirby is a resident of Kidlington village, Oxfordshire.
Readers interested in acquiring a replica of the prisoner of war medal can find further information about it here.

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