by David Lister
Dates. Events. The significance we put on the passage of time. I was born 39 years after a 17-year-old British soldier died during the First World War, on 20 March 1916. Abraham Bevistein wasn’t killed in the heat of battle by an enemy, but in cold blood by his own side. In 1901, three-year-old Aby settled in the East End of London with his family, after escaping the pogroms of the infamous Pale of Settlement. He was 16 when the war broke out, and like so many other lads, he wanted to do his bit. He lied about his age and enlisted under the name of Harris. He served in the Middlesex Regiment (the Die Hards) in Northern France and Belgium, took part in the Battle of Loos, and was blown up by a mine. After enduring some of the worst conditions of the war, and being returned to the trenches too soon after he was wounded, Aby’s nerve went, and he left his place of duty. For being away for nine hours, execution was deemed to be the fit punishment.
When I was researching and writing a book about him, Die Hard, Aby!, the centenary of Aby’s execution wasn’t an event that crossed my mind. Nearly 15 years into the future at that time. Back then, there was the remote possibility that, had Aby not been shot, he could still have been alive, one of the dwindling number of old soldiers who had passed their own centenaries. Now, those venerable gentlemen have all gone.
Here we are, 20 March 2016, and there is still a kind of life for Aby, a hundred years after that dawn in Labourse when his physical life ended. I outline below some of those post-life snatches at life.
The first event concerns a long overdue ceremony. Shortly before the publication of the book, I was able to take Aby’s niece, Betty Jacobs, and her husband to the small communal cemetery that lies a few yards from where Aby was shot and where he is now buried. Ralph Jacobs recited the Mourners Kaddish over the grave. Not being of the faith, or of the family, I withdrew while this very personal prayer was said. When Betty and Ralph joined me later, they were both clearly moved by the experience. The connection they felt for their lost relative was undiminished by the years.
The next event concerned Aby’s headstone. The inscription was incorrect in that his name was shown as ‘Bernstein’ and his age as 21. I used the evidence I had discovered while researching the book to persuade the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to put things right. The CWGC conduct a programme of renewing headstones as they become worn. Aby’s had worn, and so the time was right. His new headstone shows the correct name – Bevistein – and omits his age altogether.
Probably not a bad thing, because the 1911 census became available some years after publication of the book, and showed Aby as older than his school records indicate. And it turns out he did not follow his father’s profession: his father was tailor, but Aby is listed as an apprentice leather case maker. As to his age, it is still my belief that Aby was seventeen when executed. His sister, Betty’s mother, was hardly likely to get it wrong, and it was not uncommon for people to add a couple of years to their children’s ages during census for reasons of employment in hard times.
Following the installation of the new headstone, a contingent from AJEX (Association for Jewish Ex-Servicemen) attended the cemetery to conduct a rededication ceremony.
The most high-profile event was, of course, the official pardoning of Aby and the other 305 men and boys shot for military offences. It is doubtful this would have happened without the tireless efforts of John Hipkin and other campaigners like him. I like to think (with no evidence) that Die Hard, Aby! played its role.
Aby’s story was told in two documentary films. In Testimony Film’s Britain’s Boy Soldiers, he was brought to life by two actors: Josh Maguire portrayed the boy, and Robert Lowe provided the voice-over in the scene where Aby’s letter home is read out. Aby also featured in the BBC Ireland documentary Teenage Tommies.
The most poignant event by far, is the loss of Betty Jacobs, who passed away in November 2014. Very ill at the time, she put on a brave face for her contribution to Teenage Tommies, but did not survive to see it broadcast. Betty was the last living link to Aby, through her mother whose loss of her brother haunted her until the end of her days.
All the more reason for us to hope that Aby’s memory dies hard. Now, it is up to us.
We are delighted to have supported an initiative that will give the public access to sermons given during World War One. The link is www.religionandwar.org.
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