Thomas Harris was born in 1886 at Ottery St. Mary, the seventh child of James Harris, an agricultural labourer (born 1854 in Brushford) and his wife Eliza Keenor (born 1856 in Winkleigh). The family of James and Eliza was large, consisting in all of 11 children, the eldest born in 1873 in Winkleigh and registered as Mary Jane Keenor, and the youngest, Fred, born in 1894 in Ottery St. Mary. In the 1870’s the family had lived for a short time in Wembworthy, then in Tapps Cottage, Eggesford and finally came to settle in Rags Lane, Ottery, shortly before Thomas was born. Thomas is recorded there, aged 15, in 1901. In 1913, aged 27, Thomas married Bertha Clements, born 1873 and the fourth child of William and Harriet Clements, who had lived most of their married life in Winkleigh. In 1891 Bertha was working at Chittlehampton Farm, Winkleigh, but 10 years later she was at Barnard’s Cross with her widowed mother, her brother Samuel, and visited by her sister Amelia, now married with her two children Clarice and Unice Kelland. This was the household to which Thomas Harris came as a border, working as an employed gardener (which could at that time have indicated a market-gardener), sometime before the 1911 census, and where he was able to develop a friendship with Bertha, who was 14 years older than Thomas. The Commonwealth War Graves records show that during the war Thomas and Bertha were living in the High Street, Winkleigh and may have still been looking after Bertha's mother Harriet who lived until age 85 in 1922.
We know from the Devonshire regimental records that Thomas Harris enlisted in Winkleigh, and since his medal record shows that he was not in France in 1915, Thomas either attested under the Derby Scheme in late 1915 in order to be sure to be able to choose his regiment as and when he was called, or he might have waited until he was conscripted. The Derby Scheme, first announced to the country on 15th October 1915, comprised a personal canvass of every man between the ages of eighteen and forty-one on the basis of the National Register. Each man was asked either to join at once or attest, and committees were set up in every locality. In Winkleigh, Col. Alexander was in the forefront. Single men and married men formed two groups: each were sub-divided into a further twenty-three groups according to age, to be called up in strict order, starting with the single men aged 19, and the married men to be called only after the single me had all been enlisted. Tribunals were set up for those seeking exemption from attestation or postponement on grounds of special hardship or essential war-work. Those who attested could still, in theory, choose their branch of the army in which to serve although pressure was brought on as many as possible to serve in the infantry. The scheme was no more than a partial success, as many argued that since three million men had already come forward, 75% over and above the numbers Kitchener had called for, there was no need for further recruitment. Fewer than half those available had attested, the Tribunals had been too liberal in granting exemptions, and more men were indeed needed when the Derby scheme was finally closed on 15th December. As a result, the conscription bill affecting single men was introduced into the House of Commons on 5th January 1916, becoming law on 27th and in March 1916 the youngest group of married men who had attested were of necessity also called up. A second military service bill, introduced on 3rd May 1916, became law on 25th May, and extended the liability for military service to all men between eighteen and forty-one. If Thomas Harris, now aged 30, had not already joined, he would soon be called upon to do so.
Bertha’s youngest brother Samuel, born in 1879, also enlisted in the Devons. His name is on the Winkleigh Roll of Honour, having survived the war, come back to Winkleigh, and according to local memory lived in Vine Street. Sadly, the military records of both Thomas Harris and Samuel Clements were lost in the blitz.
The 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment was originally formed at Exeter on 15th September 1914 as part of ‘K2’, the second hundred thousand men who volunteered for Kitchener’s New Army. However, by the time that the more popular Devonshire Territorial and Yeomanry battalions had been filled, together with the 8th Battalion, the first New Army service battalion of the Devons, volunteer recruits for the 9th Battalion were few and far between. As a result, the original 9th Battalion contained a mere eighty Devonians, the remainder coming mostly from London and Birmingham. The battalion was originally attached as Divisional Troops to the 20th (Light) Division, but was transferred to the 20th Brigade, 7th Division, when it landed in France on 28th July 1915.
Once in the army, Thomas would have carried out his initial training in the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion in the Exeter depot before being drafted to join the 9th Battalion, sometime in mid to late 1916, when the British Army was about to enter the third winter of the war. Since we cannot be sure when Thomas Harris first went overseas, it is useful to give a brief history of the 9th Battalion in 1916 and early 1917.
Both the 8th and the 9th Battalions of the Devons had been completely shattered at the Battle of Loos, September 25th 1915, after which both were in various stages of recovery. The 9th had lost 15 officers and 461 men, and by 30th September their fighting strength had been reduced to 12 officers and 325 men. The battalion was rebuilt with large drafts, and by December 1915 numbered 30 officers and 1,002 other ranks, although most of the reinforcements had received only a few weeks of rudimentary training. Out of the line in December, the 9th Battalion was now converted for a short while into the 7th Division’s Pioneer battalion, operating under the Royal Engineers and engaged on mining, road-building and railway construction. However, by the end of February 1916 they were back in the trenches opposite Fricourt, then a quiet sector on what was later to become a major area in the Battle of the Somme. It was a period of unending toil, mining, patrolling, improving the trenches, wiring and trench raids, but it was also a period of very few casualties. Between October 1st 1915 and June 30th 1916 1 officer and 16 men were killed, 6 officers and 96 men wounded, and one man missing.
On July 1st, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, the 20th Brigade including the 9th Battalion led the attack on Mametz. Prior to the battle, counter-battery fire by the Germans had destroyed the Devons’ front line and support trenches and new ones had been dug 250 yards further back. The 9th crossed No Man’s Land and took the German front trench and a short stretch of trench beyond it but could do no more. The casualties were terrible. In the 9th Battalion only one of the 18 officers who had gone over the top survived , eight of them killed. Of the men 141 were killed, 55 were missing, 267 wounded - 463 out of the 775 who had gone into action. Those that had survived remained in the line for several days, consolidating the limited gain, assisting in taking Fricourt and burying their dead in a special Devons cemetery at Mansell Copse. The 7th Division, which had lost in all over 4000 men, then went into rest until July 13th. During these few days the battalion was once again ‘rebuilt’, with large drafts amounting to 486 men coming from almost every other West Country and Southern regiment. It is curious to relate that of those 486 only 46 actually came from the Devons 3rd. Battalion in Exeter, though in fact large drafts from there were being sent to other units, a strange method of encouraging the ‘esprit de corps’ so trumpeted by the authorities.
On July 14th, the second stage of the Somme offensive was conducted as a night attack, but this time the 9th Battalion remained throughout in reserve in Caterpillar Wood. Even so, they took 90 casualties from shell-fire, of whom 15 were killed. There followed four days in reserve, after which the 7th Division attacked again. Again the 9th Battalion were in reserve, this time north of Bazentin le Grand Wood. Divisional rest was then ordered for the 8th and 9th at Ailly sur Somme, some of the Welsh and Midland drafts departing to join their own regiments, and the 3rd Devons sending out further drafts from Exeter. After 5 weeks rest and training the 9th Battalion now mustered over 800 ‘other ranks’. Within days however, in a further disaster, it was to be decimated yet again. On 3rd September the 7th Division moved into the line, the 9th Battalion ‘debussing’ at Mametz and proceeding to Montauban for an attack on Ginchy, west of Delville Wood. The village was taken after heavy casualties, but could not be retained. Eight officers and more than a hundred men were killed or wounded, for very little gain.
After Ginchy the 8th and 9th Battalions were given 10 days rest, to be rebuilt once again with big drafts. The 9th received 90 men from the 3rd Battalion, all well trained, followed by 131 mainly Leicesters and South Staffords. It is tempting to think, but we have no means of knowing, that if he had been enlisted as a result of the Derby scheme, it might have been about this time that Private Thomas Harris joined the battalion. On September 18th both Battalions moved into a very quiet sector for the next six weeks between Armentiers and the Douve, in trenches unchanged since October 1914. Less than 30 men were lost during this time while a further 17 officers and 40 men joined, including some returning previously wounded. In November the 7th Division marched south over several days to reach Doullens, and then Mailly-Maillet on 23rd. On the march several drafts had been picked up amounting to 220 men, bringing the battalion once again to strength with over 800 men. The Battle of the Somme was now over, and normal trench life returned to the thick mud in the trenches just East of Beaumont Hamel, trench foot becoming a special problem as winter come on. Casualties were very low, and it was a time of ‘live and let live’ for both sides.
The last days of January and the whole of February saw the 8th and 9th Battalions in reserve, training and assimilating further large drafts, partly to offset the large sick-rate during the winter. The 9th now mustered 46 officers and 1,030 men, and were in rest at Mailly-Maillet, organising carrying parties up to the line. On 14th March 1917 the German withdrawal to the new Hindenburg line began all along the line from Roye to Arras, and the 9th Battalion now found itself just South-West of Ecoust, passing over ground devastated and obstructed in every way by the retreating Germans. It was now the task of the 7th Division to assault the Ecoust-Croiselles line, part of the outer defences of the Hindenburg Line itself. Meanwhile casualties were taken in the front line activities in front of Ecoust, losing in March one officer and 13 men killed with a further 43 wounded.
(A detailed account of the activities of the 9th Battalion, taken from the battalion war-diary during February and March 1917 can be accessed by selcting the Related Topic in the right hand panel. It is an interesting and typical illustration of a battalion in ‘Divisional rest’ during this stage of the war.)
The 7th Division now had the task of assaulting the first outposts of the Hindenburg Line, the two villages of Ecoust and Bullecourt. While the 9th Battalion had been in rest, the Australians had secured a position in the Hindenburg Line east of Bullecourt, but in order to maintain this position Bullecourt had to be taken at all costs, and the task was given to the 7th Division. The village of Ecoust, just south-west of Bullecourt had to be taken first, however, and this attack was fixed for May 2nd, to be carried out by the 8th and 9th Battalions. The position was formidable with belts of wire defending the machine-gun posts lying in a hollow invisible to the attackers. There were, however, two gaps in the wire in the two roads leading from the south into the village, protected of course by machine-guns. Prior to 2nd April attempts had been made to capture these posts, but all had failed. The 8th Battalion attacked the village itself, the 9th the north-west outskirts on the road to Croisilles and then beyond it to the railway embankment behind the village. The weather had been atrocious - rain, sleet, snow and bitter winds - but April 2nd was bright and clear. The battalions had formed up during the night 200 yards from the gaps in the wire. At 5.15am when the dawn barrage crashed down, the men dashed forward, the machine-gun posts were taken and the 8th Battalion took the village after hand-to-hand fighting. The 9th Battalion did equally well, though held up by a machine-gun in the cemetery on the Croisilles road. After heavy casualties the battalion secured its objectives on the embankment and the road to Bullecourt, and dug in as best it could.
The attack had been a complete success. On the flanks of the 20th Brigade, Croisilles had been captured and the Australians on the right had taken Noreuil and Lagnicourt. Ecoust remains a proud honour for the Devonshire Regiment, but losses had been severe. The 9th had 4 officers and 22 men killed or missing, with 1 officer and 73 men wounded. Among those who died was Private Walter Heard, another Winkleigh man, whose story is also recorded on this memorial. Private Thomas Harris, however, had survived to take part in the assault on Bullecourt. Meanwhile, the battalion went into a short rest, with billets in Logeast Wood.
Ecoust had been a great success: the attack on Bullecourt, 7th and 8th May, was almost a complete failure. On May 5th the 20th Brigade came into the line for the attack due on 7th. Advancing in support of the Gordons, 3 and 4 Companies ‘mopped up’ the first objective, a sunken road on the South-East edge of Bullecourt, named the ‘Blue Line’, before being relieved and withdrawing during the night to the railway embankment South of the village. On May 8th the 9th Battalion acted as carrying parties for the 8th that was more heavily involved in the action, but it was a day of steady freezing drizzle, slippery mud, jammed Lewis Guns and men picked off by snipers and the new German ‘egg-bombs’ which were used to great effect. On the second day the attack was closed down. The position in front of Bullecourt had been very marginally improved but only with serious loss. Among the 94 men wounded was Thomas Harris.
Extracts from the 9th Battalion’s War-Diary for 7th May tell the story:
6th May : Battalion moved up to a position on railway embankment S.E. of Bullecourt, in readiness to attack.Captain J. Symes wounded.
7th May : Nos 3 and 4 companies in conjunction with the 2nd Gordons lined up on a tape and attacked the Eastern half of Bullecourt at 3.45 am. They formed the second wave and mopped up the 1st objective which was the trench (blue line). Nos 1 and 2 companies were in support on the embankment until 4.0pm, when No 2 company went up to reinforce Nos 3 and 4 companies. Casualties 2/Lt Sandoe killed in action, 2/Lts E Morse and W. Dyson wounded in action. Casualties in other ranks, 22 killed, 94 wounded, 7 missing.
Seriously injured, Thomas Harris was passed down the line from the Regimental Aid post to an Advanced Dressing Station, and from there to a casualty clearing station, before arriving at a Base Hospital. Considerable research into the records of V Corps, 7th Division, 20th Infantry Brigade and war-diaries of various Casualty Clearing Stations has established the route of his evacuation. The war-diary of the 21st Field Ambulance, then based at Bucquoy, records that on 6th May 1917 instructions were received from the ADMS (Administrative Director of Medical Services) to establish an Advanced Dressing Station on the road between Ecoust and Bullecourt in anticipation of the attack the following day, with an evacuation route via the 7th Division Main Dressing Station at Mory (see Maps of the situation 1.5.1917 and 7.5.1917). From Mory the next move was on to the 37th Casualty Clearing Station at Avesnes-les-Baupaume, a village on the edge of Baupaume itself, just on the main road down to Albert. Unfortunately, the war-diary for the 37th was lost when the area was overrun by the Germans on 27th May 1918, but statistical records remain which show that on May 7th 1917 2 Officers and 88 other ranks were admitted. Evacuation from the CCS down the line by Hospital Train the following day totalled the two officers and 81 other Ranks, with a further 119 on 9th, 101 on 10th, 103 on 11th and 126 on 12th.
It seems therefore that Thomas Harris arrived at the Base Hospital at Le Treport, a small sea-port 25 kilometres North-East of Dieppe, on the 9th or 10th May 1917, so seriously injured that he lived for no more than a further week. Already by July 1916 the town contained three general hospitals, (the 3rd, 16th and 2nd Canadian), No. 3 Convalescent Depot and Lady Murray’s British Red Cross Hospital. As the original military cemetery filled, it became necessary to use a new site at Mount Huon, 1.5 km South of the town, where there are now 2128 Commonwealth War Graves, seven from World War ll, and over 200 German graves, in all 2357 identified casualities.
It was in one of these Canadian hospitals that Thomas Harris died on 16th May 1917, just 9 days after being wounded. The official war-diary of the hospitals at Le Treport were all combined into one - there was neither the time nor the need to record the names and details of the thousands of wounded and sick who passed through them. Unfortunately, even these sparse records have not survived beyond 30th April 1917, just seven days before the battle of Bullecourt, but what we do have is of great interest. From Le Treport ambulance trains took those casualties who were able to travel, to Le Havre for passage to England. For those few who did not survive to make the journey, the new military cemetery at Mount Huron was opened on 13th July 1916, clearly in response to the Somme offensive. Lady Murray’s Red Cross Hospital was reserved only for lightly wounded officers, and there is also reference to ‘Lady Chauffeurs’ billeted in Le Treport, presumably to give the officers outings. We can be sure that Thomas Harris was treated in one of the Canadian hospitals. References are made in the diary to what was termed ‘mental cases’, presumably the treatment of shell-shock and other neurology cases. There were special wards for German prisoners and another to guard those with self-inflicted wounds (a court-martial offence). Electricity for the operating theatres was provided by generators, and in August 1916 sufficient resources were available to light the wards together with a large recreation area, containing a reading room, stage, games area, a room for letter writing, canteen, billiards room, a library and quiet room, a flower garden in which to rest outdoors and a cinema. Films were shown every afternoon and evening, with twice weekly reservations for officers and Sisters only.
A surprising feature of the hospitals at Le Treport was that facilities were available to accommodate visitors from England - though how such travel was possible across the Channel in war-time is incredible to imagine. However, there it was, a YMCA hostel for relatives on the main Dieppe road housing up to 41 persons, with an average occupancy of 25. The hospitals were visited by concert parties from England, and French military bands would often give concerts. In the Autumn of 1916 a further rest and convalescent camp was opened at Ault, a few miles further up the coast. We are indebted to the current owner for contemporary photographs of the Anglo-Canadian Hospitals, its facilities and further information. Some of these can be seen by clicking on the image of the hotel on the right.
The scale of the casualties that were treated defies imagination. From mid 1916 and in 1917, the ambulance trains sent from many of the casualty clearing stations were bringing in up to 400 cases at a time, including together with the wounded and those suffering from gas and shell-shock, various forms of sickness such as pneumonia and enteric fever, venereal diseases and epidemics such as an outbreak of measles in the 10th Battalion of the Gloucesters. In the winter of 1916 there were hundreds of cases of trench-foot to be cared for. German casualties presented special difficulties of language translation, but there were no reported cases of hostility between the nationalities. As the war ground on Le Treport became even more overwhelmed. As an example, the diary reports that on 15th November 1916, Ambulance Train No.4 arrived with 715 ‘other ranks’ wounded, 128 German ‘other ranks’ wounded, and 43 sick, a total of 841 men in one day, and this was not exceptional. Those moving on, the vast majority of the casualties, were forwarded as soon as possible to England. As an example, the 18th November 1916 records ‘Evacuation to England by Ambulance Train No.2 consisting of 17 officers, 364 other ranks’, and the following day ‘Evacuation to England by Ambulance Train No.16: officers 4, other ranks British 395, German 29’. The last surviving entry in the diary, 30th April 1917 reads ‘Convoy in on Ambulance Train No.21: officers cot 19, sitting 7, ORs cot 187, sitting 184, Germans cot 4’.
From the Canadian hospital, Thomas Harris was taken for burial up to the Mount Huron Commonwealth war cemetery, which stretches far back from the road on the gently rising ground. The cemetery records show that the rate of burials in 1917 averaged one or two a day, rather more in 1918. Thomas Harris was the only man to die in the hospitals at Le Treport on 16th May. Buried at once, he lies on the far left-hand side, not far from the Cross of Sacrifice. Next to him was buried Lance Sergeant T. Jackson of the 6th Battalion the Border Regiment, the only man to die the following day.
11 January 2012