John William Hyde Harrison was born in Mossley, Lancashire, in 1898, the second child of Arthur William and Laura Jane Harrison. His parents were married at St Augustine’s Church, South Croydon on 3rd September 1894. John’s father had been living in Upper Norwood with his widowed mother and three siblings, at the time of his marriage. He was then a registered ship’s surgeon, having qualified as a physician and surgeon in 1890. John’s mother, Laura Jane Osborne, was living with her married sister in Croydon and worked as a kindergarten teacher before her marriage. Their first child, Arthur Osborne Harrison, was born in Croydon in 1896.
Arthur William Harrison’s widowed mother was from Yorkshire, and he had taken her and his family north to work in General Practice from “Stonely House” in Mossley.
After caring for others, it was his own family that suffered loss in 1901 when their first child, young Arthur, died in winter at the age of five. If John had become the focus of his parent’s affections then the death of his mother in 1908 must have been a heavy blow to him and his father. Perhaps in an effort to leave such bad memories behind him, Doctor Arthur William Harrison returned to South London with his son to make a fresh start. By 1910 John and his father were living in Park Road, Colliers Wood.
Life at home changed dramatically for John when his father was married for a second time to local resident Lilian Jane Hackett at the end of 1911. Lilian was close enough in age to John to seem more like a sister than a mother figure. Yet in due course, John would be presented with two baby half-siblings.
At the age of twelve 12, young John Harrison was attending Rutlish School, he would be able to walk or cycle there daily. A direct route would take John pass the Wandle flowing in front of the Merton Abbey works, on past the Nelson Arms to South Wimbledon, before crossing the junction at Merton Road to follow Kingston Road to the School on the corner of Station Road in sight of the level crossing and overlooking Merton Park station.
Perhaps occasionally, John would ride the London United tram between South Wimbledon and Colliers Wood. Before he left school, John would have seen the construction and opening of the London General Omnibus Company’s Merton Bus Garage in November 1913 opposite Merton Abbey Mills.
The school’s broad curriculum had been strong on science since its opening in 1895, as typified by the teaching of Charles Alfred Pauls who held a 1st Class Chemistry Degree and MSc. If John had any ambitions of following his father into the medical profession, a knowledge of science and chemistry would have been important. Did John Harrison know Percey Axten? As they were in different years groups they were unlikely to have been in the same classes, but in a relatively small school of 200 to 300 boys, the two may well have mixed in the playground and on the sports field.
John Harrison was in his penultimate year at Rutlish when the war broke out in 1914 and would have been well aware of all the recruitment activities – posters, hand bills, meetings, parades and marches – near his home. Wimbledon’s New Theatre, the Territorial Force Drill Hall in St.George’s Road and Wimbledon Town Hall were all used for recruitment. War related events always drew crowds of spectators, something John Harrison may not have wanted to miss. The endless “war talk” of the Rutlish schoolboys could not be avoided.
John Harrison’s education at Rutlish School was complete by the end of the 1914-15 year. Any thoughts of further studies or future careers were put to one side when John Harrison responded to the War Office appeal for “men with training in Chemistry” to join the Royal Engineers and serve in France. Exactly when John first saw the circulated forms or newspaper appeals is unknown, but he appears to have taken a copy of the War Office letter signed in his own hand to a Wimbledon recruiting Office on Friday 24th September 1915.
Knowing he was underage, it is surprising John’s father did not object. But we cannot know what debates and friction occurred between them. In any case, John’s dress, manner and confidence were enough to persuade others he was close enough to nineteen for it not to matter. He was passed fit when examined at Wimbledon and recorded as being 5ft 6in tall, weighing a trim eight stones, with a 35 inch chest and had a good physique.
With dizzying speed, John Harrison had passed from his local recruitment office, to central recruiting at Whitehall, to arriving at the Chatham Depot where he was kitted out and sent to France on the 4th October 1915. Just twelve days had elapsed between being an ex Rutlish School student and becoming 120661 Corporal J.W.H. Harrison of the Corps of Royal Engineers. In all this rush, John’s father had managed to give his son a parting gift of a pen and watch, something that would later play on his mind.
Once in France, John’s immediate destination was the newly created base for chemical operations at Helfaut, near St.Omer. There was only time for rudimentary military training and much of the work with gas cylinders, pipes, spanners and emplacements was being improvised. After spending less than three weeks at the Helfaut base, John was posted to a section of the 189th Company, the last of the original four special companies formed to carry out the offensive use of chemical warfare.
Special company operations at Loos were all but over, and records do not exist to give John’s precise movements over the next few months. Smaller scale independent actions were carried out by the special companies in November and December as much in the spirit of experimentation as of any significant military objective. Night gas attacks were undertaken in the days before Christmas 1915 on the 20th and 21st December just south of the La Bassée canal, the north of the canal on 22nd December and in the new year on the 9th January at Fromelles and on the 19th a little north of Armentières. The special companies then withdrew to Helfaut. John Harrison was on the sick list at the end of the month, possibly due to the exposure of trench work early in January. He spent two weeks in the No.10 Stationary Hospital in St.Omer and was discharged on 14th February 1916.
The expansion and reorganisation of the special companies into Brigade strength numbers scattered the original “Chemical Corporals” throughout the sections of the new units in early in 1916. John Harrison was posted to “N” Company, one of the four companies of the 4th Battalion, lettered “N” to “Q”, whose main task was still cylinder work. The 4th Battalion had moved to new quarters at Wizernes, an hour’s march North of Helfaut on the morning of 11th February. They remained here for over three months as new officers and drafts arrived, experienced men were promoted or given temporary commission and cylinder training and gas experiments were carried out. At noon on the 3rd of June 1916, John Harrison would have seen Sir Douglas Haig for what was probably his first and last time at Helfaut, when the Special Brigade were inspected by the C-in-C at a march past.
Events moved at increasing pace over the following three weeks with the approach of the opening of the Somme Offensive. The companies of the 4th Bn. Special Brigade were assigned to the VII Corps of the 4th Army working on the 37th, 46th and 56th Divisional fronts. The latter two divisions would make the ill-fated diversionary attack on Gommecourt on the 1st July 1915, and the 37th were manning trenches a little further north in the Monchy sector. John Harrison’s company commander, Captain Pelling, had reconnoitred the Monchy-au-Bois front for suitable sites for emplacements and stores by the 7th June. The 4th Bn. HQ had moved to Bouquemasion by the 13th June and thousands of “White Gas” cylinders began arriving at railheads. Over the next few days these were laboriously moved first to dumps ready to be carried into the front by infantry parties supervised by members of the Special Brigade.
By the 19th June the 4th Bn. HQ had briefly moved to St.Pol and John Harrison’s “N” company had move up to Bienvillers. The commanders and troops of the 37th Division had no previous experience of British gas attacks and issued orders to reduce manning of front line trenches and the wearing of smoke helmets or respirators at the time of the planned release of gas. A constant watch was made of the wind’s speed and direction as dedicated telephone communications and codes were established with the Special Brigade and its personnel wore distinctive bassards to ensure their easy passage in the trenches.
During the night of 22nd/23rd June, in conditions of the strictest secrecy, the gas pipes were carried from the dumps by infantry parties from the 110th Brigade, the “Leicester Tigers”. They were told to wear caps not steel helmets, carry their smoke helmets and rifles slung. They were to approach the dump in single file in silence and smoking was prohibited. This operation, under the command and supervision of John Harrison’s “N” company, took place between 10pm and 3am.
The reports of the “gas flotations”, their effect and enemy reaction, are summarised in the 4th Bn. Special Brigade diary for 26-30th June and the Infantry reports fed back to 37th Division command. The new companies had suffered their first casualties of the war. A further night gas attack on 13th/14th July in the Monchy sector resulted in over twenty more casualties in the Special Brigade.
Units of the 46th Division had moved in to the Monchy sector by the end of July, a “P” company gas operation planned for mid August was initially cancelled. Over 1,200 cylinders had been carried up by the infantry to the Monchy front overnight on the 13/14th August and placed across a 660 yard front. On the 22nd August, one German shell burst four cylinders, an officer and 19 men were gassed with one fatality. The gas was finally released on at 10pm.
Sections of John Harrison’s “N” company joined “O” company for operations on 25th of August for release of gas at Gommecourt with zero fixed at 8.30pm on 5th September. A “successful release” cost the lives of 4 men and many gassed men among the 29 wounded. Yet another release of gas occurred on the night of 14th/15th September, conducted by “P” coy. at Monchy and “O” coy. at Gommecourt, no casualties were reported. Work had started on filling 2 inch mortar bombs with gas after chemical rounds for the Special Brigade’s 4inch mortars failed to materialise.
In early October, thousands more cylinders of “White Star” gas, the deadly combination of chlorine and phosgene, began arriving at railheads in preparation for three operations. Captain Pelling had reconnoitred the front and after his “N” company had been assigned to operation G1/N they were moved up to advanced billets in Berles-au-Bois on 23rd October 1916. The emplacement of cylinders was completed within a week. The “stand-to” order came on the 12th November 1916, and the gas was discharged on the Monchy front in the early hours of 13th November 1916. The 4th Battalion Special Brigade War Diary blandly reports their casualties as, “OR 2 killed in action; 2OR wounded in action; 1 OR wounded shell shock; 9 OR gassed in action”.
John William Hyde Harrison died later that day at No.43 Casualty Clearing Station, Warlencourt. He was buried soon after in what now is WARLINCOURT HALTE BRITISH CEMETERY, SAULTY.
The news of John’s death marked the end of his father’s first family, John was just eighteen and Doctor Arthur Harrison’s grief was surely compounded by remorse. When John Harrison ’s personal effects were returned to his father in January 1917, the pen and watch he had gifted John on his departure were missing. In an increasingly acrimonious exchange of letters with the Military Authorities, Arthur Harrison demanded to know why the pen and watch had not been returned to him, accusing them of making false statements. There is a certain irony that without this exchange, the details of John’s final day would be untraceable. In attempting to answer his father’s demands, the facts revealed John Harrison was first brought to the 97th Field Ambulance.
They were located at La Herliere in November 1916 and the 97th FA diary mentions a “gas attack along selected area of 30th divisional front ..” on 13/11/196. The 97th FA ADMS diary records on 12.11.1916, “we are expected to make a gas flotation this evening”. On 13.11.1916 it records : “Gas flotation referred to in app144 took place place early this morning …”. The 97th FA had to deal with several cases of gas poisoning. The 97th FA ADMS diary shows that they were making arrangements for a proposed gas attack as early as 2nd November in terms of bearer posts, Advanced Dressing Stations, etc.
It’s the 30th Divisional war diary that holds the key information about this “gas flotation” as described in order 46, dated 31st Oct. 1916, and the subsequent report after it had actually taken place on the 13th November. The divisional papers identify the Special RE company responsible as “N” company of the 4th Bn.
The two men killed can be identified as pioneers 192541 Cecil Arthur Hunt and 192542 Thomas William Hunter, both transfers from the RFA. John Harrison was one of those wounded. It is this report which identifies John Harrison as having served in “N” company of the 4th BN. Special Brigade, Royal Engineers.
John Harrison’s name appeared in the Wimbledon Boro’ News casualty list on 23rd December 1916 without any additional details.
At the appropriate time, his father ensured John’s name appeared on the Mitcham War Memorial and on the “Roll of Honour” at Christ Church, Colliers Wood.
John Harrison is also named on the “Rutlish School Memorial” and in the official “Roll of Sacrifice” of Wimbledon, Merton and Morden and and in 1921 publication:A RECORD OF THE HONOURED MEN OF WIMBLEDON AND MERTON (Author) Mitchell Hughes and Clarke (Publisher)
Footnote: John’s father, Arthur William Harrison passed away early in January 1932 and was buried on 21st at Church Road Cemetery. His second wife and their children moved away soon after. Lillian Jane Harrison’s named was added to her husband’s headstone when she passed away at the age of 88 in 1980.