‘Soldier’s life was saved by crucifix and enemy’s act of humanity’

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‘Soldier’s life was saved by crucifix and enemy’s act of humanity’

James Burke always maintained that he owed his life to two things - the metal crucifix he carried in his lapel pocket and a German officer who rescued him from being killed.

The 22-year-old private in the Royal Irish Fusiliers was fighting in St Quentin, Northern France, during the last big enemy offensive on March 21, 1918, when he was shot in the chest by a German sniper.

The bullet ricocheted off a three-inch long cross he always carried in his tunic, causing a penetrating wound just above his heart. But as he lay there, Private Burke faced further danger.

“He was isolated and a German soldier was just going along killing the wounded,” said Don Mullan, a freelance journalist and author who brought in Private Burke’s dented crucifix to the Dublin roadshow. “If the bullet hadn’t hit the cross, it almost certainly would’ve gone through James’ heart.

“Luckily a young German officer saw what the soldier was doing, intervened and carried him to a field hospital where his life was saved. James always maintained that he owed his life to his cross and that German officer who showed him a moment of humanity.”

Don was left Private Burke‘s artefacts by his son Gary - the Godfather of Don‘s wife Margaret.

“Gary was very keen to pass on his father’s WW1 memorabilia to someone who would look after it - so it came to me,” said Don, from Dublin.

“Two months before he died in March 2003, I took Gary to the British memorial at St Quentin where his father was wounded.

“Gary said when he was a boy in the 1920s and 1930s he was always fascinated by his father’s amazing story. And he would tell me how after his father took a bath he would see the wound and try to link his fingers either side of it.”

As well as the dented crucifix, Don brought in Private Burke’s British War and Victory medals, plus a German lapel badge and miniature iron cross.

He also had a card sent to James’ mother in June, 1918, informing her that he had been taken prisoner of war in Stendal, Germany. He was later released in January, 1919.

James went on to become a chief usher at the Deluxe Cinema in Camden Street, Dublin. Following his war experience, he became devoted to the Catholic Saint Therese of Lisieux - known as the angel of the trenches - and met and married a girl he met in a city shop, called Teresa.

“I think it’s very important that the story and the history of James Burke is recorded,” said Don. “But also, I was blessed to have met his son and daughter, Ethne, who died recently, aged 83, with the cross in her hand.

“At her funeral service we gave thanks for the unknown German soldier who saved her father’s life because if he hadn’t done that, then Gary and Then wouldn’t have been born.”

Don said James Burke’s story - and especially the moment of humanity shown by the German officer - has inspired him to start the Christmas Truce Project, which commemorates the famous football match between German and British soldiers Messines in Flanders on Christmas Day 1914.

The project, which recalls how as the guns fell silent, British soldiers heard the sounds of Christmas carols rising from the German lines, has already started an international Christmas Truce Carol and Folk Festival in Flanders.

And there are plans to create a peace field on the site, where young people can gather and play sport.

By Jackie Storer

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