2nd Lieutenant John 'Jack' Harrison VC MC
The Centenary of|
The Battle of Oppy Wood
3 May 1917
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The week of the 3rd of May 2017 was a most significant one for Hull. This was the centenary of a week that saw perhaps the most tragic loss of life in just a few days that ever befell this city in time of war. Companies from the four Hull PALS battalions of the East Yorkshire Regiment, totalling nearly a 1,000 men from Hull alone, were used for a diversionary attack on the Western Front in France, designed to take pressure away from a French division to the East Yorkshire's right flank, on the French part of the same front.
It was an attack that ultimately would become an unmitigated disaster. Using the word 'designed' here is advisory; there was no 'design' in the sense we would describe it now. History would show that the preparation and planning of this attack was hurried, and abysmal, just as its execution by the troops that vainly tried to implement it was nothing short of heroic and valourous.
The tragedy was almost instantly felt all over this compact city, east and west. Within just a day or so of the battle, the city would have seen telegraph boys speeding around on their cycles delivering hundreds of the black-edged telegrams, sometimes to a dozen or more addresses in the same grid of streets. But even before the much-feared telegrams arrived, rumour would have been rife, with word of the disaster spreading from shop to shop, factory to factory, right across all the docks, faster than a bush fire, at a speed that would even now rival Instagram. Bad news travels faster than light.
Hearing the earliest reports, most older folks would have had some idea of how the news was likely to go, for there had been several precedents in the last couple of years, read about in newspapers and sometimes conveyed in heart-rending letters from distant relatives across the north. Other northern towns and cities had experienced similar disasters in this war; now it was Hull's turn.
Many thought it was only a matter of time before it came here. Towns across Lancashire as well as Yorkshire, had already known this collective heartbreak of losing dozens of their sons on one fateful day or night. This was one of the unforseen consequences of the formation of so many 'PALS' battalions, so many neighbours, workmates, brothers and cousins, all in the same fighting units, all from the same town.
It would be several weeks or so before the totality of all the casualties would be known, not until the lists published in newspapers told the hundreds of individual, tearful stories, one by one, of each family's loss. Several families suffered more than one loss, with cousins, uncles or nephews all being killed within hours of one another, different names in the casualty lists, but essentially the same extended family at home.
No Hull citizen alive now has ever suffered such collective trauma on such a huge city-wide scale, where one household would be trying to get to grips with the meanings of their own loss, whilst knowing at the same time that friends and neighbours up and down the very same street, and indeed nearby streets, were suffering also, a deep and silent shock mingling with gallons of tears in the same households as the news sank in that their man would not be coming home.
Only Hull's previous history of losses at sea through whaling and fishing, where one ship's loss with all hands had a similar dramatic effect on a small locality, did perhaps 'condition' the local population to such wretched news as that they received in these first weeks of May in that terrible year. Hull would yet lose even more men than this before this war ended, indeed had already lost a great number, on land and at sea, but never again would the city know such bitter news being delivered in just a few days.
During the action, Hull teacher and local rugby league player of quite some renown, 2nd Lieutenant John Harrison VC MC of the 11th (Hull Tradesmen) Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment, lost his life leading his men into the teeth of ferocious machine-gun fire coming from the very heavily defended Oppy Wood. It is beyond question that this man's selfless sacrifice undoubtedly saved even more mens' lives and prevented the final death toll being yet higher still. Apart from being posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, his claim to fame is better known under his nickame 'Jack', and as Jack Harrison still holds the record for the largest number of tries for his Hull FC team in one season, that being 1914-15, the year the war started.
On Sunday, May the 7th, in the Centenary Year, a memorial VC stone paver was unveiled inside the Sutton War Memorial Garden to honour this remarkable man's memory. There are two diverse images of Jack further below, both paintings by artist, Alan Tye, who kindly loaned them to our museum for for display in the centenary week.
The story of the four Hull PALS Battalions is remarkable, and companies from all four took part in the action at Oppy. In total, over 6,000 Hull men volunteered to serve with those four, in addtion to all the men who had already formed the first nine battalions of the regiment. Those 6,000 PALS alone were four times the number of volunteers from Manchester, a city twice Hull's size, and other Yorkshire towns at the most managed two battalions. Leeds and Sheffield would provide one PALS battalion apiece.
Given those figures, we can see why the disastrous attack on Oppy affected Hull so very dearly. The final death toll from the three Hull battalions during those two days in May was 326 men, with as many again wounded or taken prisoner, and many more died later of wounds. Indeed, one battalion was so decimated in numbers that it effectively ceased to exist, and the survivors of the remaining companies were then absorbed by the other battalions. That wasn't the final toll by any means. Hull's telegraph boys would be kept very busy indeed, and for some time to come.
The three links below will take you to more details, the full story of the battle, and the fourth link is a good starting point if you want to commence a search for a long lost soldier for your Family History research. Pressing F11 will make the screen full-size, especially beneficial on tablets and laptops: F11 brings your menu back again. Even better, getting rid of the side menu gives you a full width view, no encumberances.
The Hull PALS and "Jack Harrison Exhibition" in the Carnegie Centre on Anlaby Road, on the weekend of the centenary was a truly awesome display. The Hull artist/historian Judy Galloway was responsible for the exhibition, supported by a very enthusiastic volunteer staff. Her attention to detail and the high quality of a display that surely took hours and hours of preparation was truly worthy of all our admiration. It was also good to meet Mr Alan Tye, the artist responsible for the remarkable paintings you can view here below, as well as many other folks who have as deep an interest in Hull's history and heritage as we do.
Click either pic thumbnail for larger images, of Jack Harrison the Sportsman and rugby league player, and 2nd Lt Jack Harrison, VC MC the army officer.
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