Your article: Harrison family war heroes

Redvers Harrison started in the Gordon Higlanders at a very young age.
Redvers Harrison started in the Gordon Higlanders at a very young age.

Ken Durkin kindly supplied me with information and photographs which enabled me to tell the story of his wife’s family, the Harrison’s.

Thomas William Harrison, a farm labourer, and his wife Sarah were on the eve of World War One, in 1911, living at number 12, Chapmangate, Pocklington. But they later moved to 9, Church Lane by the outbreak of war. Thomas William enlisted as Private Thomas William Harrison and was shipped out to the Balkans and fought in Salonika. Little is known of his time there. He left his five sons James, Redvers, Thomas, Gabriel and George and also two daughters Annie and Nellie at home in Pocklington.

Their eldest son James enlisted with a special reserve unit called the ‘Wolds Wagoners’ as Reg. No. Wg712. The Wolds Wagoners were made up from farm workers who were expert horsemen and would deliver stores to the troops. He later transferred to the 2nd Battalion Highland Light Infantry as pte. 38464 in August 1915, and was in full service one week later. During the course of the war he was wounded three times, and also gassed. At one point he was recommended for the Military Medal, although it is not known why. He was killed in action age 21 on 24 March 1918 in the Battle of Bapaume and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial, as well as the town memorial in Pocklington. James has no known grave but is remembered in the Roll of Honour book in Edinburgh Castle, and also in the story of The Wolds Wagoners, in which he is described as being “62 inches high, 105lb, with grey eyes and dark brown hair”.

Thomas William had married a Pocklington girl Sarah Elliot in Pocklington church in 1896. Sarah’s own family also suffered tragedy when her brother James Elliott, a driver with the Royal Field Artillery, was killed at the age 27, on 17 April 1917, and is buried in Aubigny cemetery. Thomas William saw out the war and afterwards delivered goods for the Railway Company with his horse and cart and died in Pocklington in 1936 aged 61.

One of his other sons George Bernard died in World War Two aged 36, on 18 September, 1944, He was in the Royal Army Field Ambulance Corps and is buried in Leopoldsburg War cemetery.

Then we come to the oldest surviving brother Redvers Harrison which is a remarkable story of adversity and endurance. It was reported in the Howdenshire Chronicle and Pocklington Weekly News in December 1918, from which we tell the tale.

Redvers joined the Gordon Highlanders at only 14 years of age with a service number of 30854, he probably lied about his age. At the age of 16, he was attached to the Northumberland Fusiliers. After a course of training at Ipswich and Doncaster he was drafted to France on 6 February 1918, being only 17 years of age at the time, but a big, fine lad for his age.

He fought at Cambria, Champagne and Bullecourt, being wounded and taken prisoner from the latter place on 27 May 1918. Forty of them were fastened in an enclosed truck, and remained there without food or water for 14 days, without even their wounds being attended to. Eventually a German Red Cross Nurse appeared on the scene and on being asked for water, she fetched them half a bucketful of salt and water. Some of the men had lost a limb, and died in the truck, whilst most of the wounds were “walking with maggots”.

The Germans alleged the prisoners had been forgotten, and they were then taken to barracks, where their wounds were roughly attended to, but received the more careful attention of two American doctors shortly afterwards, and their condition improved. More than 1,500 prisoners were put into one camp and caught dysentery. For five weeks in camp Redvers had nothing to eat from the Germans except a few cabbages pinched through the wires. When he got better he was sent into an aluminium factory. His clothing and boots had been taken from him to give to German soldiers, and in spite of the fact that he and 22 other Britishers and 80 Italians had to work along with German girls the only clothing he had on was a pair of pants. They had not enough to eat and one girl took pity on him, and secretly gave him a cabbage occasionally, which he cut up into slices and ate raw as he worked. About 13 August, British Red Cross parcels started to arrive and things improved, and they were liberated on 13 November. They were about 20 miles from Holland, and the 23 of them decided to walk it. Just after crossing the frontier they were met by two Daily Mirror men and a Scotch officer, who took them to have a bath and some good food. After remaining at that Convalescent Camp for about a fortnight they went on to Rotterdam, where they were supplied with new clothing, and sailed for Blighty.

Redvers brought with him a pair of wooden clogs, made out of solid wood, and in which he was photographed wearing by the Daily Mirror, representative, a capital photo appearing in their issue of 9 December, 1918. Private Harrison was wounded in the heel and thigh by shrapnel and made him lame upon his return to Pocklington. This is a remarkable story for which his later family were never made aware. Most of these brave heroes never wished to talk about their experiences but just wanted to live a normal life upon return to home.