‘Miraculous’ escape of a First World War soldier when pocketbook stopped sniper’s bullet is among stories in new display

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The story of Private Cross, Corporal Cooper was reported in The Western Times, 18 February 1916 | © Image © Reach PLC. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

A small pocketbook inside the uniform jacket of a private in Gallipoli during the First World War stopped a sniper’s bullet and saved his life.

Thanks to research by the National Trust and Findmypast, the remarkable story, along with others drawing on data from the recently released 1921 Census, is part of a new display, throwing light on soldiers, nurses, family and staff at Knightshayes Court in Devon, which served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) hospital during the First World War.

Private Sydney ‘Syd’ Alexander Cross was born in Australia in April 1896 and served in several British regiments during the war. In 1915 on the Gallipoli Peninsula, a sniper’s bullet struck his chest but stopped halfway through a pocketbook, photographs, and papers in his breast pocket. 

This ‘miraculous’ incident did not pass by the newspapers at the time, and he was featured in an article in the Western News in February 1916 where he was shown recovering at Knightshayes, holding the pocketbook and bullet.

However, a further twist of fate is described in the news report. The pocketbook contained a testament Private Cross had been given as his regiment left England, and the bullet had come to a stop at the words reading: “A thousand shall fall by thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.”

From Knightshayes, Private Cross returned to the Front but in 1917 he was discharged following a bout of malaria. National Trust staff at Knightshayes had no information about his whereabouts following the war, but thanks to the release of the 1921 Census and a new collaboration with Findmypast, some of the next chapter in his life has been revealed.

By 1921 Sydney was married, his wife Elizabeth having completed their census entry. At this time, Sydney was working as a steward for the Cunard Shipping Company. Records reveal further glimpses of his life, with a Sydney Cross recorded in 1926 in Trade Union records as a dining car attendant on the railways, and by the time of the 1939 Register as a waiter in Battersea, London. 

Private Cross was not the only soldier recovering at Knightshayes who made the newspapers after a remarkable escape. Described in the same Western News article as “a story of modern miracles”, Corporal Cooper from the South Staffordshire Regiment was wounded by a shrapnel shell which burst over his trench in Belgium in 1915, leaving him with 119 wounds. He also went on to recuperate at Knightshayes. 

In addition to the 1921 Census, researchers have also drawn on two autograph books owned by one of the nurses and an estate worker, containing messages, jokes and drawings made by the soldiers at Knightshayes.

Katie Knowles, Assistant National Curator for the National Trust said: “With every new census that is released comes a wealth of detail that we can use to find out more about the people associated with National Trust properties. 

“At Knightshayes, which played an important role as a military hospital during the First World War, the 1921 Census has given us the chance to find out what happened to the men who fought, including family members and servants, as well as the nurses who cared for them. Some of the tales, such as the extraordinary escape from death by Private Cross, paint a vivid picture of individuals during the war but now we can learn more about their lives including the social and political changes that affected them.”

Rachael Pett, Collections and House Manager at Knightshayes Court added: “I hope visitors will enjoy reading about what happened to some of the people connected to Knightshayes – or may even know about or be related to them and can help us uncover more – and will be inspired to start researching their own family history as a result.”

Jen Baldwin, Research Specialist at Findmypast, said: “The 1921 Census has already revealed countless untold stories for people across the globe. We’re so excited to work with the National Trust to delve into these records and offer new perspectives on the people who lived and worked at sites like Knightshayes. Using Findmypast’s extensive data and our millions of inter-connected family trees, we can reveal the stories of peoples’ lives in more detail than ever before – from military heroes to millworkers. I hope that this collaboration will inspire people to research the history of their own families and the places they lived.”

The Knightshayes display has been created with research by National Trust curators and other staff and experts from Findmypast where the 1921 Census records can be accessed.

It opens to the public today (Saturday 20 January) for weekends, and then seven days a week from Saturday 10 February.

For further information and opening times see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/knightshayes

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