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How Phillip Davies survived WWI – saved by a pocket New Testament

Philip James Davies was born of strong Welsh descent in Ballarat, Victoria, on July 16, 1895. Growing up in the gold rush town, he attended Humffray Street State School, and went along to Sunday school at the Ballarat Town and City Mission. Upon graduating, Philip worked first as a labourer, before moving into mining.

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He was working in the gold mines when war broke out in 1914, but it wasn’t until 1916 that Philip signed up to serve in the 39th Battalion. He was 20 years old. The battalion was formed from men of the Western District of Victoria following heavy losses on the Western Front in 1914–15. His enlistment papers suggest he’d been previously rejected for “His Majesty’s Services” because of his teeth, but this time he was allowed in.

A local Ballarat newspaper from June 5 includes the entry “Off To War”:

The Ballarat (39th) Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force is understood to be now ‘somewhere at sea’ bound for service abroad. Prior to the departure of the battalion from Ballarat, there was a route march of the troops through the streets, when the district people did all honour to the men, who are o to assist in defence of their country.

Before leaving Australian shores for England on the steam ship Ascanius at Geelong, the British and Foreign Bible Society gave a pocket New Testament to each soldier, including Lance Corporal P. J. Davies.

You’ve been saved by that New Testament!

The 39th Battalion First arrived in England and was then moved to France four months later in late November. They arrived at the trenches of the Western Front for the first time on December 9, just in time for the onset of the terrible winter of 1916-17.

When support was needed in various areas, members of the 39th Battalion moved to the borders of France, Belgium and Germany. In July 1917, a group of soldiers was required to dig and lay telephone cables at Messines Ridge in Belgium, not far from the German border. Five soldiers were selected, and Lance Corporal Davies led the group late at night to do the work. It was the eve of his 21st birthday.

While they were laying the cables, two large shells exploded close to the soldiers, killing one of the men, and injuring three others. Among the injured was Lance Corporal Davies, struck with shrapnel on the back of his legs and both arms. Two stretcher-bearers soon arrived to pick up the soldier who was killed and, soon afterwards, more help arrived to transport the wounded to the nearest casualty clearing station.

Lance Corporal Davies was transported to London for surgery on his leg wounds. The next morning, he began to look through the pockets of his tunic. In his top left pocket he found his New Testament hadn’t moved. But upon removing it, he saw the front cover was damaged and the back cover was distorted, but unbroken. As he opened the Bible, he could see a piece of shrapnel buried into the wafer-thin pages. The surgeons standing near the bed said to him, “You’ve been saved by that New Testament! If the stiff back cover hadn’t stopped the shrapnel, it would have entered your heart.”

The shrapnel stopped not far from Ephesians chapter 6, verses 16–17, which reads: “Above all taking the shield of faith wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the very darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.”

After a long period of further treatment lasting some months, Lance Corporal Davies was returned to Australia. Back home, in 1920, he married his sweetheart, Victoria Turpie, who gave birth to their first son Richard in January 1922. Brother Raymond was born in October the following year. It wasn’t until Philip’s son Richard was a teenager and they were cleaning up a room in the house that he discovered his father’s treasured New Testament. That day, his father told him the above story for the first and only time. Richard has never forgotten.

Before he died in 1972, Lance Corporal Davies told Richard to never let the little New Testament out of his sight. He was to hold on to it until his own death, at which point he should gift it back to the Bible Society. In 2015, when he was 92 years old, he generously lent the New Testament to Bible Society as part of its 100 Years Since Gallipoli display.

But that’s not where the story ends. In 2013, a Bible Society representative came to Ballarat to hold a Bible Sunday service at Richard’s church – Ballarat Church of Christ on Peel Street. All parishioners were invited to bring along their personal and family Bibles to form a display. As expected, Richard brought along his father’s treasured WWI Bible con- taining the shrapnel. While looking at the Bible, another couple in the congregation, Carol and John Harrison, realised John’s father, Wilfred, and Richard’s father, Philip, had both been in the 39th Battalion. e families had been at church together for years, and never knew their fathers had fought together in WWI. In fact, the Harrisons had a photograph of the 39th Battalion, gathered at Ballarat Showgrounds on the day it was formed, hanging on their wall for decades. Little had they known Richard’s father’s face was right there too, in the third row.

Richard Davies hand wrote most of the above story across three nights in August 2014. Edited by Sophie Timothy.

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