‘I can only say that his men loved him’: Geoffrey Harrison on the first day of the Somme

Second Lieutenant Geoffrey Harrison, Machine Gun Corps

Geoffrey Harrison is the fifth and last of the Sevenoaks men that were killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. His great nephew, Sir Michael Harrison, still lives in Sevenoaks and has written this account of the life of his great uncle, which is included in my book on the war memorial.

Geoffrey Harrison, my paternal great uncle, was born on 8th April 1896. His father was Bernard Bowles Harrison and his mother was Elizabeth Anne Harrison (nee Franks). In the 1901 Census, Bernard Bowles Harrison was described as a Master Printer. At the time of that Census, the family was living at ‘Hurstdale’ in Granville Road, Sevenoaks, a house which was built sometime between 1890 and 1896 and which is still standing today. The family at that time included Geoffrey’s older brother Bernard Guy (my grandfather, who later became Sir Guy Harrison), who was fifteen at the time, and his two sisters Winifrid Madge, then aged thirteen, and Elsie, then aged twelve. Geoffrey was the youngest, aged four. Guy Harrison married Cicely Vicat, sister of Horatio John Vicat and Frederick Holland Vicat, who are also remembered on the Sevenoaks War Memorial.

Geoffrey was educated initially by Miss Webb in Granville Road, Sevenoaks. He then went to a prep school called Beechmont in Sevenoaks where he was captain of the school. After that, he went to Rugby School in 1910. He left Rugby School in 1914 to go to University College, Oxford but shortly thereafter, on the outbreak of war, he enlisted in the Public Schools Brigade. Documents at that time record that he was 6’ 2 inches tall and weighed 160 lbs. He was described as having a fair complexion, blue eyes and blond hair.

In December 1914, he obtained a Commission in the 12th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, transferring later to the 13th Battalion. On 21st December 1915, he was transferred to the Machine Gun Corps (Infantry), and in April 1916 he left for the Front.

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 11.08.54Second Lieutenant Geoffrey Harrison

He was killed only a few months later on 1st July 1916 on the first day of the battle of the Somme (there is a telegram from the Army Council to his father dated 9th July informing him that Geoffrey was killed on 2nd July but that was corrected in a later document dated stating that there had been confusion between officers of the same name and confirming that Geoffrey had been killed on 1st July 1916).

The circumstances of his death were that he was leading his Section in ‘No Man’s Land’ at Contalmaison when he received a wound in the thigh. He gave instructions to his NCO to push on, when a shell burst and killed him. He was aged twenty.

Eleven days later a brother officer, GB Martin Scutt, wrote to Geoffrey’s mother.

My dear Mrs. Harrison,

‘I have been out of action ever since the first day of the attack, and only had my first news of the Coy. late last night, and with it the terrible news about Geoff. As you know we have been chums ever since we joined the Corps. and for the last six months have done everything together. Since we have been in France, whenever the officers had to be paired off for billets, etc, or an occasional day free, we two were together. This is a fairly stiff test of friendship, yet I can honestly say that no man could ever want a better pal, and throughout that close relationship I have never known him to say or do anything unworthy of the true Gentleman he always was.

Off parade and in Mess his classical allusions and quaint phrases kept us in constant good humour up to the last. He was everybody’s pal. On parade I can only say that his men loved him.

We said Good-bye to each other on the evening before the attack commenced at about 6.30 when he was in the best of spirits. As our sections were on opposite flanks I had no chance of seeing him during the action, and before we’d been moving a quarter of an hour I had a bullet through both lungs. I shall do my best to learn more details from those who were with him up to the last, if I get the opportunity – but I know there is only one way in which he could have gone out, and that is as a gallant officer and gentleman.

As I am sure you know, my sympathies go out in full to you and Mr. Harrison, and I feel much more than I can express.

If I succeed in learning anything that I think would interest you at all, I will let you know, or, when I am well enough, may I come and see you?

Until then, I remain,

Yours very sincerely,

G. B Martin Scutt

Geoffrey is buried in Ovillers Military Cemetery in the locality of the Somme.

IMG_0346Memorial to Geoffrey Harrison in St Nicholas Church

There is a splendid plaque inside St. Nicholas’ Church, Sevenoaks, in memory of Geoffrey Harrison. It refers to him being killed in action near Fricourt in the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916, aged 20. ‘He died the noblest death a man may die Fighting for God and Right and Liberty’.

His name is also recorded on the Roll of Honour inside the church, as well as on the church War Memorial near the entrance to the churchyard. His name is also recorded on the Roll of Honour inside St. Mary’s Church, Kippington, Sevenoaks although not on the War Memorial outside.

The Headmaster’s son: Captain George Heslop at the Somme

George Henry Heslop

Captain, Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex Regiment)

George Henry Heslop is the fourth of the five Sevenoaks men who died on (or whose death was officially recorded as having occurred) on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

He was the son of the Headmaster of Sevenoaks School, also George and his wife, Gertrude. Born in Sandbach, Cheshire in April 1895, the 1901 census shows the family living at the School, with George living with his three sisters, Margaret, Evelyn and Faith.

George had prepatory lessons at his father’s school until he was sent to Lancing College, where he was in Olds House from September 1910 to July 1914. He was a member of the Officer Training Corps where he achieved Certificate A. He was in the Cricket XI from 1911 to 1914 being Captain in 1913 and 1914.

He topped the batting average in all his summer terms, scoring 981 runs in his time at Lancing, finishing the 1914 season with an average of 89.

He also bowled, taking nine wickets for fourteen runs against Eastbourne College in 1913 and finishing the years 1913 and 1914 as the school’s highest wicket taker also being second in the bowling averages for both years. Consequently, he was described by Wisden as being “the most promising young all rounder who had yet to appear in a first class match”.

He was also a member of the Football XI from 1911 to 1914 and was Captain from 1912 to 1914. He was appointed as a Prefect in 1913, won his sports colours in 1912, 1913 and 1914 and was Victor Ludorum in 1914.

He won a place at Trinity College Cambridge in 1914 but did not take it, due to the outbreak of war, choosing to join the army instead. On the 11th of September 1914 he enlisted at 24 St James Street, London as Private 433 in the Public Schools Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment.

He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 16th Battalion on the 29th of September 1914, was promoted to Lieutenant on the 25th of January 1915 and to Captain on the 17th of May 1915.He attended Staff College for a month and qualified as a first class instructor of musketry.

IMG_0892Captain George Henry Heslop

By November 1915 he was at the front where he saw action at the Hohenzollern Redoubt.

On the 26th of January 1916 the Germans attacked across the old Loos battlefield and the 16th Middlesex were called upon to re-enter the front line (they had been resting) to support a battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. On the morning of the 28th of January the Company Commander of B Company, Major Way, was moving along the front line trench with Captain Sholto-Douglas and the company runner. Shortly behind them was George Heslop leading a group of men of roughly platoon strength. Suddenly a heavy barrage fell on the group killing the two officers and wounding Heslop and a number of others.

He returned to his unit shortly afterwards when he spent much time involved in the reorganisation of his battalion after the losses they had suffered during the fighting at Loos.

He was put forward for promotion to Major but this was turned down on the grounds of his age and of insufficient experience. He attended a number of courses in bombing and machine gun practice and was appointed to the staff at his Headquarters.

He took part in a number of raids in the three weeks before the opening of the British offensive on the Somme on the 1st of July 1916. His Chaplain wrote of his attendance at Holy Eucharist shortly before the attack.

In the early hours of the 1st of July 1916 the 16th Battalion Middlesex Regiment moved up from where they had been resting at Auchonvillers to assembly positions from where they would take their part in the opening attack. They were to join the rest of their Brigade in assaulting the German positions from the village of Beaumont Hamel to a position 100 yards to the west of the German trenches at the Hawthorn Redoubt. The Middlesex were to be in support of the 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers and the attack would be immediately preceded by the explosion of a large mine under the Hawthorn Redoubt which would be the signal for the British advance to begin. D Company, led by Captain George Heslop, would be on the left of the battalion’s advance and would take a Stokes Mortar with them.

They reached their assembly positions by 3am and by 6.25am the British artillery had become intense as zero hour approached. At 7.20am the mine under the Hawthorn Ridge exploded and at 7.30am the British advance began. The Middlesex followed at 7.55am, D Company quickly formed up into ranks, described as “parade ground straight”, and moved forward.

As they crossed no man’s land their ranks were swept by intense machine gun fire and men began to fall immediately. German artillery also joined the retaliation and began falling on the front line and support trenches adding to the enormous casualties.
The attack quickly faded under the weight of fire with the few survivors going to ground to seek cover from the relentless fire. But most had died in the two hundred yards between the British front line and the edge of the Hawthorn crater, including George Heslop.

By the end of the day the battalion had suffered 3 officers killed, 10 wounded, 5 missing with 6 more officers missing believed killed. Among the other ranks 19 were killed, 306 were wounded, 37 were missing believed killed and a further 138 were missing.

One of his men wrote that he advanced that day “not minding the shells and bullets, but just leading us on as if nothing was happening“.

His Colonel wrote of the love felt for him in the regiment, of his rapid promotion and that of the 24 officer casualties on the 1st of July and that “no one’s death would be more deeply felt”.

 

In order to establish what had happened to George Heslop a number of statements were taken from members of his battalion who were present that day.

On the 25th of October 1916 a statement was taken from Sergeant 1217 H.G. Valentine while he was in No. 11 General Hospital at Etaples. Valentine had been with the battalion signalling section that day

“I started out with the Colonel, but got separated from him and found myself with Captain Heslop who was in charge of the Pioneers. By his order, we lay down by the wire and advanced about 100 yards. Then we saw him drop down. At first we thought he was giving the signal to halt, but as he lay still, we concluded that he was dead and continued on, leaving him there. Later we retired and reported to the Colonel. Search parties were sent out, but could find no trace of him”.

A statement from Sergeant 1443 A. Butler, D Company was taken while he was at 5 Southern General Hospital, Faucett Road, Portsmouth

“Informant states that on 1st July or July 2nd at Beaumont Hill Capt. Heslop was seen lying dead just outside our parapet by L/Cpl Sephin, who told informant that he had examined Capt Heslop and had found him to be dead. Informant was lying out wounded for three days in this part of the line and said that the Germans were picking up and taking in many of our wounded, but as he was told that Capt. Heslop was lying nearer to our parapet than that of the Germans he did not think it likely that they had taken him in”.

The date of death was accepted for official purposes as having occurred in action on the 1st of July 1916.

Heslop’s family received a telegram informing them of his death on 6th July. His devastated father wrote to a in a letter to a parent

“My boy was killed on 1st July in the first ten minutes of the great push. There is nothing to say. He had a duty and it was done”.

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imageGeorge Heslop senior’s letter describing the loss of his only son

Later in the war, in November 1917, Heslop wrote to another parent

“The war is very cruel. By our post yesterday I heard of the deaths of two more old boys. We schoolmasters have suffered. For though our boys are not of our blood they become very dear to us and something more than friends”.

imageGeorge Heslop senior

Over three hundred Old Boys of Sevenoaks School fought during the war with around forty being killed.

George Heslop’s body  was  recovered, identified and buried in 1917 and in another letter his father wrote

“I have just had a letter from the Front giving me a full account of the finding and burial of my boy”.

Captain George Heslop is buried at Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery and commemorated on the war memorial in the chapel at Trinity College Cambridge and with a memorial plaque inside the church at St Nicholas, Sevenoaks.

IMG_0345Memorial to George Henry Heslop at St Nicholas Church

The Sussex Daily News recorded another memorial to Captain Heslop on October 28th 1916

“In memory of Captain G.H. Heslop, Middlesex Regiment, who fell in action last July, and who was very prominent in athletics at Lancing College, an anonymous gift has been provided, by means of which a cricket bat will be presented annually for the best individual performance in the Brighton College match”.

 

 

 

My thanks to John Hamblin on behalf of Lancing College and Mrs Sally Robbins, archivist at Sevenoaks School, for their collaboration and permission to use some material published elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

Remembering the Sevenoaks Anzacs; a visit to the war graves

I’ve written before about some of the Sevenoaks ANZACS. In particular,  George Marshall and his friend, Arnold Jarvis, who emigrated to Australia together in 1912, possibly with another friend, Kenrid Horace Davey. Tina and Robert Higgs are related to Arnold Jarvis and were the first relatives of a man named on the Sevenoaks War Memorial that I met on a glorious summer day in August 2014 when we held a special service at the memorial to remember the outbreak of war, one hundred years to the day. At the time, I hadn’t found any relatives of Arnold’s friend George Marshall and so, during the ceremony, Tina lay a cross to remember George as well as one for Arnold. Since then I’ve been very pleased to meet Tim Marshall, George’s Great Nephew and we’ve all exchanged emails. Tina and Robert have recently visited a number of family First World War graves and have written an account of their visit, including a trip to George’s grave.

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It’s always special for family members to visit the graves of their relatives and I’m pleased to share Tina’s account of their trip in memory of both friends and the sacrifice they made:

My husband and I have recently returned from visiting the WW1 graves in France and Belgium of six of our great-uncles, plus the best friend of one. This was something we had been intending to do for several years and at last we were on our way.

We travelled from our home in Peterborough to France via Eurotunnel, and stayed for a week at a gîte just south of Lille. This was a fairly central location, with the furthest cemetery being 1 hr 10 mins away and the nearest 30 mins. We visited two memorials at Thiepval and Loos (Dud Corner) and five military cemeteries at Bulls Road, Dozinghem, Carnières, Calvaire (Essex) and Dernancourt. The smallest, with only 54 headstones, was in the picturesque village of Carnières and the largest, commemorating over 72,000 men, was Thiepval. The cemeteries were of similar appearance in their design, with a Great Cross, Stone of Remembrance, Grave Register and Visitors’ Book. The book and register were stored in an unlocked metal box in the wall, but there was never any sign of vandalism or graffiti. The cemeteries were all immaculately kept.

Two of the men are remembered on the Sevenoaks War Memorial – Arnold Jarvis and George Marshall. They were best friends who emigrated to Australia in 1912, no doubt full of excitement and optimism for their new lives. They enlisted in the Australian Infantry Force and ended up in France, where they died.

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Headstone of Arnold Jarvis

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Headstone of George Marshall

Another great-uncle, Harry Underwood, is remembered on the Knockholt Memorial. The family lived in Star Hill Road, Chevening, where his father was a gamekeeper.

At Dozinghem we met a young Belgian couple who told us that they often visit the cemetery and feel much love and respect for the men who lost their lives there. This was so heart-warming to hear.

At each grave we laid a small wooden cross and said a prayer. We left for home feeling reassured that our loved ones are at peace and not forgotten.

Since Tina’s visit, further research has led to the discovery of extracts from two letters that Arnold sent home during the war, to the Reverend Thompson at St Mary’s, Kippington, Sevenoaks, which were published in the parish magazine, the first in Spring 1915.

Ulysses. – here I am, really a soldier at last. This is a family large boat, and it is carrying (number censored) of us fellows: we all belong to the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade. None of us have the faintest idea as to our destination, whether it will be England or Egypt. We have just passed Aden and the voyage has been magnificent. we are getting 5s. a day, and 1s. a day deferred pay, and we all put in about ten weeks hard training before we came on board. I am sorry that I must not tell you much of our doings yet, but if we come to England and get a day or two off, of course I shall come up to the Vicarage to see you all. I have not been sea sick and I am quite happy. Do wrote to me often.

A later extract is introduced in the magazine with the news that after 12 weeks silence, a letter had arrived from Arnold, who had been wounded at the Dardanelles and had written from hospital in Egypt.

Heliopolis Hospital

June 8th

I received a slight wound in my leg, it is nothing in itself, but poison or something has got in so I cannot put my foot to the ground, however I hope soon to be out of this, although I am getting very good treatment. We had a very rough time of it for six weeks, with two days in the trenches and two days out all the time. Our Company lost nearly all its non-commissioned officers and several officers before we had been in the firing line an hour. It seemed awful at fist to see ones own friends being shot dead all round you, but afterwards everything seemed natural. I had several very marvellous escapes – in the first half hour a machine gun was turned on us and we had no trenches then, one bullet took a piece out of my trousers and another hit me in the jaw and took half a tooth out, another made a furrow in my leg and I had a piece of shrapnel in my back. I shall never forget it if I live another two centuries. There is a great fascination about it all and I am longing to be back, it is a nuisance to be lying here when there is so much to do, and I want to get back to my pals.

Update: July 2017

Tim Marshall and his three sons, Stuart, Doug and Gary, visited the grave of George Marshall on the centenary of his death on 13th July and later visited the grave of Arnold Jarvis, meaning that both families have now visited the graves of the two friends. A few weeks earlier, Stuart and joined me at the annual ANZAC service at Westminster Abbey to remember his uncle.

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Tim Marshall with his sons at the grave of their Uncle George

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Stuart Marshall and Matthew Ball on ANZAC Day