Features / World War I

Marking the life of Bristol’s only WWI soldier shot for desertion

By leanne brommage, Tuesday Nov 1, 2016


At noon on Tuesday, under falling autumn leaves in a small inner city park, the family of Bristol’s only soldier shot for deserting the army during World War One gathered.

Amid the industrial noise of St Philips, a moment of piece and quiet in The Dings Park stood out powerfully from the busy world around it.

It was a tribute to all of those who lost their lives in the Great War, but a special tribute to the Jefferies brothers who both lost their lives in 1916 in the Battle of the Somme.

Arthur Jeffries died fighting along with more than a million others. Alfred Jefferies, Bristol’s only deserter, was shot by British armed forces for what was described at the time as “cowardice”. He fled the war along with just over 300 British men who were also killed for escaping the front line. All of the men later received a posthumous pardon.

The short service was opened by words left by lance corporal George Taylor who fought alongside Alfred before he was unjustly shot.

The words were spoken in a strong Bristol accent, planting Bristolian roots into the memories of the Jefferies family who now live in Yorkshire.

“They put ee out the way, wiped him out, wiped him away, you won’t find him on no plaque nowhere and they act like he never existed,” Taylor said.

Geoff Woolfe author of ‘The Bristol Deserter’

The history of the two brothers was recalled by Geoff Woolfe, a member of the Bristol Radical History Group and author of the The Bristol Deserter.

He described the lives of the Jefferies brothers as “factory men who worked amongst the smoke and noise of the city and were then launched into smoke and noise of the front line”.

He said the way in which Alfred was killed as “not a just system at all”. A full exoneration did not come about until 2006.

Professor Lois Bibbing from the University of Bristol led the research into the pardoning of many of the men who were shot for desertion and cowardice.

She said: “We all need to know the stories of these men, their experience in the trenches, the reason for their actions, their treatment by the military and how they died.”

A wreath was laid by Alfred’s great nephew David Jefferies who had travelled to Bristol with his mother and auntie. The crowd stood in silence trying to comprehend the Great War and the thoughts of Alfred as he fled.

David Jefferies laid the wreath for his great nephew

When coming to terms with the 100th anniversary of his uncle’s execution, a despondent David said only: “It would have happened at 6am this morning.”

David found out about his great uncle’s death when researching his family history. He described feeling a bit embarrassed when he first learnt of the circumstances by which Alfred died.

On reflection, however, and with the knowledge that Alfred had eventually been exonerated, he said: “As far as I’m concerned, the day you sign up for war makes you a hero.”

As the crowed dispersed, the gloomy circumstances that brought everyone together seemed to be reflected in the grey sky that surrounded the small memorial. Gloom as to the circumstance in which Alfred Jefferies died – but not for what he is perhaps now to be remembered for: a hero of war.

 

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