North Devon in 100 Objects: 1. A Manual of Devotion

The first in our 100 Objects series was written by the late David Butt, one of the founding members of the museum Development Trust.

A prayer book with a black cover with a bullet lodged in the centre of it.

As a young boy I remember many stories where the hero was shot…only to rise again as the bullet hit his sheriff’s badge or the tobacco tin in his top pocket and he survives to fight and win again!  So imagine my joy when I saw the real thing in the local Museum!  Here was a ‘Manual of Devotion’: a prayer book with a bullet lodged in it – firmly embedded and stopping the bullet reaching the heart.  A soldier’s life in the Great War, saved by his beliefs.  And not just any soldier, but a local man of the Devonshire Regiment- someone who lived locally, who was so lucky. There in front of me was ‘Fact stranger than any fiction’!

As you stare at the simple Prayer Book, so many questions and thoughts come into your mind. On what poignant verse had the bullet come to rest – was that a message? Why and when had he put the book in his pocket and why in fact had he taken it into battle? Had he been reading it just before the bullet arrived? How had he come by the Prayer Book in the first place?  Had this strengthened his faith and what had happened to him later in the War – had he survived, when so many hadn’t?

Perhaps this is what a Museum should do:  inform but get you to question what you think and believe, studying one real artefact, so your mind expands and imagines more.  There is so much real evidence and research opportunities for the Great (First) World War – but of our Town, our families, our people and places.  Somehow the enormous numbers of events of a nightmare conflict become understandable, when numbers become individuals and real people.

Does it matter? Yes.  The Great War (as it was then called – no one thought the human race would be stupid enough to do it all again) had a profound impact in so many ways on the communities of North Devon. Is there a village in North Devon without its war memorial? You want to learn more so your eyes then wander to more diaries, objects and personal letters, but many with a sad tale. The 39 men from Pilton who didn’t come back! The bronze plaques and impersonal letters from the King – thanking families for their ultimate sacrifice.

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