Medals enigma

One of the joys of working with an ever-expanding museum collection is that sometimes seemingly familiar items can provoke questions for us at the museum, as well as for those who donate the items.

So it was when Trixie Walker from Leyburn came to the museum recently with a group of three First World War medals – a 1915 Star, a British War Medal and a Victory medal – awarded to 2609/240803 Private James Henry Jeffrey. Trixie had no idea who Private Jeffrey was, or why his medals were amongst her father’s effects.

As far as she knew there was no connection to an individual or family named Jeffrey. Naturally, our interest was fired.

Our own archive showed that Private Jeffrey served with the 5th (Territorial) Battalion and had landed in France on 1st November 1915 – so he was what was then known as a ‘Saturday night soldier’ or ‘Weekend warrior’. Our records also showed that Private Jeffery was listed as a Prisoner of War (PoW) in the January 1919 edition of The Green Howards Gazette.

Private Jeffrey’s medal group.

Looking further afield, we found Private Jeffrey in the PoW Archive at the International Committee of The Red Cross. His record showed that he had been taken prisoner on 27th May 1918 at Craonne in France. This placed him in the midst of the final German attack of the First World War, the so called ‘Kaiserschlacht’. The War Diary for the 5th Battalion notes simply that, on 27th May, ‘The enemy attacked at 4.30am. Barraged commenced at 1am…..casualties 26 Officers and 638 Other Ranks missing’.

The confused nature of the fighting and the doubt about what happened to men caught up in the German offensive is also reflected in the fact that information about Private Jefferey being a PoW did not reach the Depot, and then The Gazette until January 1919. One wonders what his family knew of his fate, and when they knew it.

Private Jeffrey was one of the 638. His final destination was the POW Camp at Gottingen, east of Dusseldorf. Moving into the post-war archives, we know that Private Jeffrey became a Police Constable at Chop Gate and, a delve into his family history showed that his father, William, had been an Estate Bailiff at Castle Howard – something of a closing of the circle given the connection of the Howard family to the regiment.

When we we shared this information with Trixie, there were some factors which might explain why her family had the medals.

“As someone who enjoys researching family history and remembers many things mentioned about my own relatives over the years, there are some curious facts popping up”, says Trixie. “In 1939 James was a Police Constable living at Chop Gate. Although we don’t have a date when he joined the Police, my maternal Grandfather was a Superintendent in the North Riding Police but had retired before 1939, and during the 1960s my Uncle was Vicar of Rosedale, not far from Chop Gate, so maybe they both knew James?”

Maybe one day, descendants of James Jeffrey may visit the museum and we will be able to show them his medals.

Find out more about our Family History Research Service.