Friday, 13 February 2015

Yes, Virginia, a Bible Really Did Stop a Bullet.

     I seem to be writing a lot about war these days. Of course, we have all heard the story about the soldier whose life was saved when the Bible in his breast pocket stopped a bullet. But it's just an urban legend, isn't it? Besides, it has been effectively debunked by the Mythbusters, hasn't it?
     Well, not quite. Yes, it is an urban legend, in that nobody can tell you when, where, or to whom it happened. But folklorists do recognize such a thing as "ostension", when real life accidentally mimics an urban legend. As for the Mythbusters, all they proved was that no book is strong enough to stop a bullet fired directly at it from the distance of a normal rifle range. It ignores what really happens on the battlefield, with bullets and shrapnel spraying and ricocheting left, right, and centre, losing momentum with each ricochet. In fact, military rounds are designed to ricochet. So you should not be surprised that the Australian Bible Society does possess a Bible - or, to be more precise, a New Testament with Psalms - which did stop a bullet.

    The soldier involved was Lance Corporal Elvas Elliott Jenkins, A.I.F., born 1888 in Ararat, Victoria, who moved to Melbourne at the age of twelve, and took employment as a printer three years later. But in 1910 he left to train for the Methodist ministry, and in the middle of 1914 he was ordained.
     You know that fateful year. The Guns of August was the title of a famous book. In point of fact, the First World War commenced on 26 July, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, but it was on 4 August that the British Empire went to war. And on 17 September, Rev. Jenkins enlisted - not as a chaplain, but as a sapper in the 2nd Field Company Australian Engineers.
     Two months later they were in Mena Camp in Alexandria, Egypt, and it was at this time that, somehow or other, he acquired the New Testament, for inscribed in the front are the words, "Elvas E. Jenkins, Mena Camp, Egypt, 1914, 1st A.I.E.F." As you can see from the photograph, it was about the size of a man's hand, but it was no ordinary New Testament; it was in French. Indeed, it was the 1901 edition of the 1894 revision of the Ostervald translation, an important French Protestant edition originally published in 1774. At the time, Alexandria had a French quarter.
     Jenkins, now a lance corporal, joined in the landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, the Bible in his shirt pocket, over his heart. Not long afterwards, the following words appeared written in the back of the book: "Shrapnel bullet from shell of 75 mm field gun. About May 6 or 7, 1915." These shells were packed with explosives and 295 lead balls, each weighing 10 grams, and were designed to explode on impact, spraying the shrapnel in all directions. As you can imagine, their force of impact would be much less than that of a high velocity bullet fired directly at a target. Nevertheless, they carried a punch. Lance Corporal Jenkins' New Testament was worn with the rear facing outwards, and one of those 10 gram balls tore through the back cover, ploughed through Pslams and Revelation, right up to Acts, but halted at the Gospels. If it had struck his flesh, particularly in the space between two ribs, the results would have been serious.
     Time passed. Gallipoli having been evacuated, Jenkins found himself in France, promoted to Lieutenant among the frontline engineers of the 1st Pioneer Battalion. The Battle of the Somme was about to commence, and his unit was posted to a site which soon become famous in the annals of Australian military sacrifice: Pozières. On 19 July 1916 Lt. Jenkins was in charge of a reconnaissance party set to determine the precise location of the German trenches. He briefly led his men in prayer. Then a sniper shot him in the neck and chest. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the average healthy person dies hard. He did not succumb to his wounds until the following day, the first Australian to lay down his life in the Somme campaign.
     The death of a soldier initiates yet more paperwork, and one of the essentials is the terms of his will. Jenkins had left nearly everything to his brothers, but certain personal items, including his books, were to go to Jeanie Reid, a medical student whom he had planned to marry. The blasted Bible was obviously a book, so off it went to the surprised Miss Reid. His family of origin knew nothing of it. And although Jeanie eventually married someone else, she always treasured the love letters and memorabilia of her first fiancé, as did her family. It was through them that the Bible Society received the Bible with the bullet.
     There is a sequel. At the War Memorial in Canberra stands a tree sprouted from a tree from Lone Pine at Gallipoli. Knowing that a branch had been knocked off in a storm, a Dr. John Harris asked for it, and handed it over to his friend, Geoff Canning who converted it into a special box for the special Bible.
     The Bible isn't the only book which has stopped a bullet. French soldier, Maurice Hamonneau had been carrying a translation of Rudyard Kipling's Kim, when a bullet struck it and passed through all but the last twenty pages. Grateful, M. Hamonneau placed it in a red box, along with his own Croix de Guerre, and mailed it addressed simply to "Monsieur Kipling". Eventually, the author and the soldier were able to meet face to face, and Kipling became godfather to the Hamonneau's son, who was named Jean (John) in honour of Kipling's own son, who had been killed in action.

References:
Jenkins: John Harris (April 2012), "'One of the best': Elvas Jenkins and the Bible with the bullet", Eternity no. 24, pp 10 -12.
Suzanne Schokman (Dec 2014), "Box fit for a digger's Bible (and a bullet)", Eternity (Dec 2014), p 3.
(This is a free monthly newspaper published by the Australian Bible Society.
Hamonneau: Suzanne Chazin (June 1993), "You'll be a man, my son", Reader's Digest, June 1993, reprinted in Reader's Digest Classic Reads, 2013, pp 100 - 106

2 comments:

  1. Heh - "Mythbusters" could "prove" the sun rises in the West and that gravity is just a hoax. Any results from that show are absolutely meaningless because of one word: "given". There are literally an enormous numbers of variants which affect the outcome of any "test". Take range for example. I mean, really, what the heck does "normal rifle range" mean? We're talking point-blank to a mile or more, and that's just aimed fire. The projectiles themselves can travel up to two miles or more. This results in enormous variations in penetration power. Then one must consider rifle caliber, type of cartridge - including infinite details of load, meaning propellant type and amount, projectile type, weight, configuration, composition and so on. The rifle or machine guns are also important, as barrel length greatly affects velocity and bullet energy.

    There are numerous well-known examples of bullet- and shrapnel-stopping-Bibles among family heirlooms in America, many coming from the American Civil War, in which round and round-nosed projectiles predominated. These were propelled by black powder from smooth-barreled muskets as well as rifled ones. All this means that bullet velocities in the ACW were considerably lower than in modern weapons, and round-nosed projectiles simply did not penetrate nearly as far as modern "spitzer" type or "sharp"-nosed bullets powered by cordite and more recent propellants. Also, as you note, there is no way of knowing the projectile's history before striking the Bible in question, and whether much energy had already bled off.

    There is nothing unusual about Bibles or other books which stop bullets and shrapnel, the yahoos at "Mythbusters" notwithstanding.

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  2. Read and heard many anecdotal stories, with other supporting stories of several incidents like this. Yes range and caliber a lot to do with it, and of course ricochets. After moving here to France read many stories of the bullet in a bible, and more so the old chain watch, and especially the still popular metal cigarette case. Interesting stories, but still like the Billy Connolly joke how his ciggy case or watch, depending on which night he tells it saved his grandfather from a bullet in the heart, as it deflected it up his nose into his brain! Cue Green Day "Bullet in a Bible".

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