March 20th, 2016 Headsman
One century ago today, a Polish Jew from east London named Aby Bevistein was shot for cowardice in Calais — four weeks shy of his 18th birthday.
Abraham Bevistein was among an estimated quarter-million Brits who bore arms as minors in World War I. Fired by patriotism, these boys dodged the military’s 18-year-old minimum by … telling their recruiters they were 18. No documentation necessary.
Bevistein, whose family had moved to London from Warsaw when he was a small child, was British through and through enough to surge into the army with the first wave of pie-eyed volunteers in September 1914. He had 16 years and four months, and if he was like many of his new comrades in arms he probably reckoned on being back home by 17 — a bonny hero of a speedy war.
Instead, he spent most of 1915 navigating the labyrinth of trenches in France, and all their attendant horrors. He was wounded in December of that year but soon passed fit for duty again. On February 12-13, 1916, shellshocked and deafened by German grenades, he again sought medical help but was directed back to the lines by a harried medical officer. Instead, Bevistein wandered away to the rear, and took temporary refuge at a French farm.*
“We were in the trenches and I was ill so I went out,” he wrote to his mother by way of all-too-nonchalant explanation. “They’ve taken me to prison and I’m in a bit of trouble now.”
Anti-war suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst took up Bevistein’s cause when she learned about his execution, prominently publishing a sympathetic feature story in her newspaper, Women’s Dreadnought. Like 305 other British and Commonwealth soldiers shot at dawn during the Great War, Bevistein was posthumously pardoned and added to war memorials in the 21st century.
* The farm owner’s later testimony to Bevistein’s court-martial that the young tommy had expressed an intent to return to England sealed his fate as a deserter.
On this day..
- 1954: Ernst Jennrich, for 17 June 1953 - 2017
- 1531: Sikke Freriks, Menno Simons inspiration - 2015
- 1899: Martha Place, the first woman electrocuted - 2014
- 2007: Taha Yasin Ramadan, Iraqi Vice-President - 2013
- 1428: Matteuccia di Francesco, San Bernardino casualty - 2012
- 1393: John of Nepomuk, Bohemian rhapsody - 2011
- 1897: Scott Jackson and Alonzo Walling, Pearl Bryan's murderers - 2010
- 1809: Mary Bateman, the Yorkshire Witch - 2009
- 1933: Giuseppe Zangara, who is not on Sons of Italy posters - 2008