Ok, I know this article’s title is likely to put off a large number of readers. The few that get this far are likely to be concerned that this is just another doom and gloom story. In today’s very troubling times, I can understand that you would much rather read about a flashy new gadget, or about what’s on in town, or how to lose weight or where to go this summer for your last minute vacation. Please feel free to do that as well, but also rest assured this is not a doomer rant.
Most environmentalists (yes I consider myself one) like to try to get you to think about the future of the planet by talking about what our grand children are likely to inherit. For instance, there is David Suzuki’s Letters to My Grandchildren and James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren. Both are important and engaging reads. However, in this article I am going to do the exact opposite.
Think of this article as a letter to my grandfather (on my mother’s side), John James Harrison. I think the life he led and the times he lived through provide valuable insights about the future of our world and what we can expect. This is not an article about how history repeats itself, or even how history rhymes as Mark Twain would suggest, but rather deals with questions of individual resilience and a willingness to serve in the face of unprecedented challenges.
Sadly, I never met my grandfather and to be honest I knew very little about him until this year. He died long before I was born and although there are supposedly many photos of him in my very large and extended family, I only have two in my possession — one at the wedding of his sister and the other in his army uniform which only shows his head and shoulders.
It was while preparing a talk earlier this year to mark the 100th anniversary of World War One that I recalled my mother mentioning that Grandad had been a soldier, and I began to search online for information about him. Coincidently, one of my relatives had commissioned a researcher to collect information about him and with a stroke of luck we gained access to his military records. I say stroke of luck because 60 percent of WW1 service records were destroyed by fire in 1940 and those that remain are referred to as the “Burnt Documents”. Amazingly, all of these records have been digitized and are available online. As a result, we gained access to Grandad’s military history sheet, statement of services and casualty form.
So what do we know?
Well, the first thing you may be wondering is why “wars” is plural in the title. The answer is that, at the age of 19, Grandad enlisted with the West Riding Regiment (a Riding is a sub-division of the County of Yorkshire) in May 1900 and fought in the Second Anglo-Boer War. In case you don’t know, the Boer War was Britain’s equivalent of the United States’ Vietnam War. Although the conflict ended in 1902, he remained in the Regiment until April 1906.
When Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, Grandad was 34 years old and employed as a bricklayer. The records show that he volunteered in York (his hometown) into military service with the 10th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment on 17 September 1914. You can find the complete regimental history online but there are some significant events that I would like to share with you in this article.
The 10th Battalion, with training completed, was mobilized for war and landed in Boulogne, France on 14 July 1915. Grandad remained in France on this posting until 23 January 1917. While his battalion fought in a number of battles during that period, it is the Battle of the Somme that was perhaps most disastrous.
I read the official regimental records in a book entitled The West Yorkshire Regiment in the War. It describes events on 1 July 1916 when at 7:30 a.m. the 10th Battalion went over the top of the trenches, across No Mans Land, to assault the German lines at Fricourt Village. The Battalion assaulted in four waves. Two got through while the two others failed. Casualties were heavy, chiefly resulting from machine gun fire. Twenty-two officers and 750 other ranks were either wounded or killed. No ground was gained and the Battalion was withdrawn to Ville.
I cannot imagine what it was like to have been there and to have lived through that experience. It is also impossible to know what happened to Grandad and how he was involved. However, by the end of the first day of the Battle of the Somme the British had suffered close to 60,000 casualties, of whom 20,000 were dead. It is believed that the casualties suffered by the 10th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment were the highest for a single battalion on that first day.
Struck down by flu, another lucky escape and getting wounded
Conditions in the trenches were deplorable and Grandad’s casualty form shows that he was admitted to the No.1 Australian General Hospital in Rouen on 13 January 1917 with influenza. Remember, this was before the advent of antibiotics and at a time when medical knowledge of influenza was limited. In this context, flu was a killer and patients would suffer serious respiratory problems and in some cases massive pulmonary hemorrhages.
As a result, records show that he was transferred back to Britain on the Hospital Ship Glenart Castle on 21 January 1917. He was to remain in Blighty recovering until later that year (perhaps an indication of the severity of his illness) when he was reposted to France on 14 September 1917.
This meant that he was back with the 10th Battalion when the German’s launched their Spring Offensive on 21 March 1918 — the deepest advance since the war commenced and a final attempt to defeat the Allies before the United States military forces could be fully deployed.
By 25 March, what remained of the 10th Battalion was defending an area east of Eaucourt l’Abbaye. This constituted just 150 soldiers in two companies, fighting together with another 150 soldiers as part of the 50th Brigade. At 10 a.m. on that day, the Germans attacked the 10th Battalion’s positions using a large number of machine guns. The initial attacks were repulsed but at around 11:30 a.m. the left front of the Battalion broke and the entire force, by now almost surrounded, had to withdraw. Casualties were high and many were taken prisoner. Yet again, those that survived were lucky, including my Grandad.
By April 1918, the danger of a German breakthrough had passed and in August that year the Allies began a counter-offensive. The 10th Battalion was in action crossing the Ancre River on 23 August and then attacking the enemy lines in the early hours of the morning of 24 August, capturing seven German officers, 240 other ranks and eighteen machine guns.
The Battalion was not directly in action on 25-26 August, but in the very early morning on 27 August they encountered the German defenses on a hill west of Flers. The initial line of trenches were taken without trouble, but fighting for the next line of trenches was more fierce and continued until 7:30 a.m., when an enemy counter-attack made the position untenable and required the Battalion to withdraw. During this period, a total of 140 German prisoners and fourteen machine guns had been captured. At this point, it is clear that the Allies were winning the war.
It was during these operations that Grandad was wounded in the left wrist. His military history sheet indicates that he was transferred back to Britain on 1 September 1918 and, for him, the war was over.
End of the war, start of the pandemic
Demobilization for Grandad and the other soldiers in the 10th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment took place on 1 April 1919. His service record has a stamp indicating that, at that time, he was no longer physically fit for service, with a 40 percent disability due to his wound. There is also a calculation of the total time he spent in service, indicating 4 years and 197 days.
Like the millions of other British soldiers who served in WW1, Grandad’s records show three stamps confirming that he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal 1914-15, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. He also received the Silver War Badge, which was issued to soldiers discharged due to sickness or injury. The badge is inscribed “For King and Empire — Services Rendered.” It was intended to be worn on the right breast of the recipient’s civilian clothing.
The inscription on the Victory Medal is very telling. It reads “The Great War for Civilization 1914-1919.” This was to be the war to end all wars. It was a war for the future of civilization. It was the beginning of the end of the Empires of the European Powers and resulted in over 37 million military and civilian casualties globally (recognizing that soldiers came from across the world to fight and die in the trenches — for example one million soldiers from India served during WW1 and 62,000 lost their lives).
One fact that gets less attention is the shocking situation at the end of the war when, over the period of January 1918 to December 1920, the Spanish flu emerged as a global pandemic affecting 500 million people and resulting in the loss of 50 to 100 million lives.
Research has shown that the initial epicenter for this pandemic was a major troop staging area and hospital camp in France in 1918, although others suggest earlier origins in the Spring of 1917. I have to wonder whether Grandad’s 1917 bout of flu made him immune. In the end, the tragic reality is that more people died as a result of this pandemic than did during the actual War.
The Great Depression
Getting back to Grandad’s medals, we no longer have them in the family. When I asked my mother about them she said that they went missing and may have been pawned (given as a security for a loan). Why would this be the case?
Clearly life was not easy, even with a soldier’s pension, in the post-war period. Within a decade from the end of the War, on 29 October 1929, the US stock market collapsed and the world was plunged into the Great Depression. This was to last until the late 1930s, with unemployment rising to as high as 33 percent in some countries.
I can imagine that, if work was scarce in Yorkshire at this time and Grandad needed to buy something for the kids, then he would have little choice but to use the medals to borrow some money in hopes that he would one day have enough money to get them back.
Grandad passed away in 1937 at a time when the world, still recovering from the Great Depression, was slowly slipping back toward another global conflict. I don’t know if he ever talked to his children about being a soldier or how he felt about his life experiences. I asked my mother, who was born after WW1, for her recollections. She remembers him as tall, handsome and with a beautiful singing voice. She also mentioned that he had a wrist support on his left arm. There may have been his war records and papers in the house, she said, but all that disappeared when Grandma died in 1970.
If possible, I would really like to learn more about John James Harrison and to try to track down some photographs of him. If I could find his medals that would be an amazing bonus (regimental number 10114)!
Living through a long emergency
In closing, you may have noted elsewhere in my writings for Our World I have covered the work of James Howard Kunstler entitled The Long Emergency where he explores the consequences of a peak in world oil production, coinciding with the forces of climate change, resurgent diseases, water scarcity, global economic instability and warfare as the cause of major trouble for future generations.
Having told Grandad’s story, I don’t feel that Kunstler’s predictions are far-fetched, and I can see how people like my own Grandfather lived through very similar circumstances in the past. Yes, things have changed greatly, and it is true that energy, climate and water issues are new factors in the equation, but war, pandemics and global economic stability are not.
What Grandad’s life tells me is that people are resilient and can find a way through even the most desperate times. I also understand that people are willing to fight for what is important to them. At the time of WW1, you fought for your ruler, nation, empire, or civilization. During WW2, the fight seemed to be more about ideology — fascism versus communism versus democracy. Now, the reasons to fight today remain complex and the challenge of keeping the peace is immense.
In comparison to the life of my Grandad, I live in comfort and my daily trials and tribulations may appear trivial. Nor do they compare to the suffering on-going by people in many parts of the world — Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, and on. But what I recognize is that we are all currently living through the early stages of Kunstler’s long emergency (you only have to follow the news today to see this is true).
There are difficult days ahead and the world will be changed profoundly as a result. I truly hope that these change are not brought about by more wars and even more suffering. Rather, I want to believe that if we are willing to radically rethink and remake everything then by acting now we can ensure a peaceful, just and ecologically sustainable world.
As a result, we will manage this transformation (and not be victims to it) and we will somehow avoid repeating the costly mistakes we made in the 20th and 21st Centuries. I like to think that this is something for which my Grandad would have volunteered his support.