Battlefield hero cheated death in World War One

Alfred and Alice Broughton
Alfred and Alice Broughton
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Even in an era of unbearable tragedy, heroism and sacrifice the First World War story of Alfred Edward Broughton is remarkable.

Born in 1896 to a Sheffield family in Skegness, Alfred signed up to the Rifle Brigade in September 1914 at the age of 18.

He fought in some of the war’s most bloody conflicts where thousands of men were slaughtered on both sides every day.

But he survived. He went ‘over the top’ at the battles of Loos, Ypres and several offensives during the The Battle Of The Somme and despite losing most of his comrades he survived.

He was shot in fierce hand-to-hand fighting in the battle of Cambrai in November 1917, left for dead in no-mans’-land, then rescued by the Germans and taken to hospital.

Later that night he was laid in a mortuary next to what was to be his coffin and a nurse whispered in his ear that he would not see another day.

But, unknown to his family back in Sheffield who would have been told he was ‘missing in action’, he survived. Here’s how young Alfred recorded his experiences later in a journal as he recuperated from his wounds.

“We were surrounded by Germans and having to fight side by side with my company Captain who was knocking them down with his fists while I used the revolver butt, until one man thought we were doing too much damage and he shot me down from behind, meaning to kill me because he was only 10 yards away. The bullet entered against my spine and coming out against the hollow of my arm. I laid there eight hours until a German officer had pity and sent me back to a hospital in a place called Cambrai.”

“I then of course was in German hands. After two days there I was sent further to Le Cateau and was told quietly that I’d die before morning so I was put in the mortuary my coffin being against me ready as soon as I did die.”

But, as his memoir attests, he didn’t die in the mortuary or anywhere else in the war.

On January 23 1918 he was recorded by the British army as alive and what appears to be a returning prisoner of war.

There is no record of how he got back to British lines or back to Britain.

But the war was over for Alfred and he was discharged from the army as ‘no longer physically fit for war service’ in November 1918 as the conflict was ending.

A capable recruit in 1914, Alfred had worked his way up by 1918, to become Company Sergeant Major, the highest rank a non-commissioned Officer could then reach. Alfred was also awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery, an honour ranked second only to the Victoria Cross in the British Army.

After he fully recovered and had been discharged Alfred, now 23 years old moved back to Sheffield to be with his young wife Alice.

Then Alfred’s story took a terrible twist. Having survived the mechanised slaughter of some of history’s most deadly battles, beaten terrible wounds and cheated the coffin maker, he took a job at Vickers’ River Don Works in Sheffield.

He had only been there a couple of weeks when he was visiting the Stamp Shop in the works when, according to a report in a Sheffield newspaper in November 1919:

‘A man named AE Broughton, 23 of Shirland lane, Darnall was visiting the stamp shop at the works when a wedge flew out of one of the machines and struck him on the head.

‘His injuries were so severe that he died shortly after admission to the Royal Infirmary”.

After four years of war, life in the trenches and a bullet in the back Alfred was killed in a freak work accident.

His heartbroken wife Alice was pregnant at the time and, according to her grandson Jeff Herbert, never fully recovered from her loss.

“My mother, who was named Alfreda Alice after both her parents, told me the stories before she passed away 25 years ago and I checked them with the Ministry Of Defence and got copies of his army records,” said Jeff, aged 69, of Crawley in Sussex. “I also got a copy of the Sheffield paper, I think it was The Star, that reported the accident and I had the journal he wrote as he was recovering from his wounds.

“His mum and dad lived at 300 Main Road Darnall and his father was Church Warden at All Saints. My grandmother went through hell. She had a real hard time and never really got over it.

“She married again but was never the same and she had to sell Alfred’s medal to get by during the hard years. It’s so tragic because he was so lucky to be alive after four years in the army. So many of them didn’t come back or survive even a few weeks.”

Alfred is buried in Darnall cemetery along with his mother and father William and Rebecca Broughton.

Don’t miss The Star’s Saturday Retro supplement on Saturday for more World War 1 Stories.