Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Bugler Ralph Frederick Jeffery

For the next few posts, I may well be jumping around a bit in terms of dates as I try and catch up after a few years away from my blog. Today, a few months after the centenary of his death, we remember Ralph Jeffery, the youngest soldier to embark with 24th Field Ambulance in 1914, and the youngest to lose his life.

Ralph was born in Plymouth in the first quarter of 1898. His mother, Jane Pillifent, had married his father, Fred Jeffery in 1895 and he was to be the eldest of their three sons. Fred was a Bricklayer and Mason and the family moved to Wales around the turn of the century, settling near Abergavenny. In 1902, Fred died at the age of 38 and was taken back to Devon to be buried in Jane's family grave. Jane most likely moved back as well at this time and later met Edward Walker, a sign-writer whom she married in 1906 in Exeter. They lived at No 3, Bartholomew Street. 

We have evidence that his brother Jack joined 1st Wessex Field Ambulance, our antecedent unit in Exeter, when he was 14 and taken on as a "Boy" in the March of 1914. Although Ralph's Service Records do not survive, as Jack's service number was only a few digits after his, I think he probably joined at the same time at the age of 16. He became a "Bugler". Territorials could take recruits at the lower age of 17 (18 for the Regulars) so I am not sure why these two brothers were allowed to join at this young age. (Anyone who reads this who knows, feel free to enlighten me!) Jack's record clearly states 14!

Even stranger was the fact that Ralph was then allowed to go with the unit to France on the 5th November 1914. However, he was now Colonel Pickard's "batman" as I suspect it was thought that this would keep him away from danger. Thus, he was with the unit (now renamed 24th Field Ambulance) throughout the campaigns of 1915 and 1916, and through the first month of the Battle of the Somme.

Choques Military Cemetery
Some years ago, one of our members interviewed several veterans of the 24th. Only one recording survives from a Private Casley. He recounted Ralph's fate on 20th August 1916. Acting in his role of Colonel's Batman, Ralph accompanied Col Pickard up the line to inspect new premises for an Advanced Dressing Station. Whilst there, the line was shelled. Col Pickard escaped unharmed but Ralph was wounded by some shrapnel. The colonel dressed his wounds himself and took him back down the line to No 1 Casualty Clearing Station. Here, he succumbed and was buried in the CCS Cemetery, now Chocques Military Cemetery, Pas de Calais. He was a few months past his 18th Birthday and the youngest soldier of all our antecedent units to lose his life. 

His brother Jack was discharged just before Ralph died and the mystery deepens, as it was due to having made a "mis-statement as to age" although as noted above, they were aware that he was only 14. After the war, the family moved up to North Sheilds with Jane giving her address in Princes street for the entry in the CWGC database.

Above is a detail from a photo I have already posted. These two look alike. Could they be Ralph and Jack? In the original picture, you can see several boys of roughly the same age. Time to do some more research....

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