Killed in Action in Italy
John William Harris was born in Pilton, then a separate village, in 1876.
His father, William, was a mail cart driver and his mother, Ann an upholsteress. John was their eldest son and he had a brother Charles and sisters Annie, who was the eldest child, and Beatrice. Annie worked from home as a dressmaker, Charles was a cabinet maker like his brother and Beatrice trained as a teacher.
On 29th May 1901 John married Alice Mary Bushen, a milliner from Kentisbury, in Kentisbury Parish Church, witnessed by her father, a Carpenter and Wheelwright, and John’s brother Charley.
In 1911 John is established in his own business as a cabinet maker, making office furniture, in Stoke Newington, London. At this time they had three children: Winifred Florence, Edith Mary and Cecil Charles. All three were born in Devon, so they were still living here in 1909 when the youngest child, Cecil, was born.
It has not been possible to find out whether John had already set up on his own in Devon before moving to London, or where he served his apprenticeship, it is reasonably likely he might have worked for Shapland and Petter, but that is just a guess.
John and Mary had a fourth child, John K, whose birth was registered in West Ham, Essex in the 2nd quarter of 1915. Alice would probably already have been pregnant when war was officially declared, so John may not have signed up immediately.
When Mrs Harris received the following notification of her husband’s death she was living at 9 Buller Road, Barnstaple.
‘It is with great loss to us all. We shall miss him greatly, as he was one of the oldest and most popular members of the Company. I have known him ever since he joined up in London, and his death is a great blow to us. I feel it will comfort you to know that he suffered no pain and death was instantaneous. He was buried by the Chaplain and the location of the grave you will be able to obtain from the Graves Registration Office, as I regret I am unable to mention it in my letter.’ The letter concludes with an expression of deepest sympathy with Mrs Harris.
It seems likely that Mrs Harris moved back to Devon after John had joined the army, to be near the two families and to be away from the capital in the safer West Country.
On 2 September 1915 a definite proposal was made to the War Office for the formation of a single specialist Machine Gun Company per infantry brigade, by withdrawing the guns and gun teams from the battalions. They would be replaced at battalion level by the light Lewis machine guns and thus the firepower of each brigade would be substantially increased. The Machine Gun Corps was created by Royal Warrant on October 14 followed by an Army Order on 22 October 1915. The companies formed in each brigade would transfer to the new Corps. The MGC would eventually consist of infantry Machine Gun Companies, cavalry Machine Gun Squadrons and Motor Machine Gun Batteries. The pace of reorganisation depended largely on the rate of supply of the Lewis guns but it was completed before the Battle of the Somme in 1916. A Base Depot for the Corps was established at Camiers.
A total of 170,500 officers and men served in the MGC, of which 62,049 were killed, wounded or missing.
The 7th Division in 1914-1918
“One of the greatest fighting formations Britain ever put into the field”: eminent Great War historian, Cyril Falls
“Few Divisions can have equalled the strong Divisional spirit which inspired the Seventh Division, making it work as a team, working together towards the same end. It has been described as a very happy Division, and therein lies no small part of the explanation of the wonderful record which these pages have sought to outline’ : Divisional History, C.T.Atkinson, 1926.
The history of 7th Division
The 7th Division was formed during September and very early October 1914, by the bringing together of regular army units from various points around the British Empire. They were assembled in the New Forest in Hampshire before initially moved to Belgium. The Division landed at Zeebrugge in the first week of October 1914, ordered to assist in the defence of Antwerp. However, by the time they arrived the city was already falling and the 7th was instead ordered to hold certain important bridges and other places that would help the westward evacuation of the Belgian army. Once the Belgians were through, the Division was moved westwards, where the infantry entrenched in front of Ypres, the first British troops to occupy that fateful place.
The First Battle of Ypres: the Division fought the advancing German army to a standstill at Wipers. All units suffered grievous losses and it was not until the following January/February that it was once more in a complete enough condition to be considered at full fighting strength. After First Ypres, it was often known as the “Immortal Seventh”.
The Battle of Neuve Chapelle
The Battle of Aubers
The Battle of Festubert
The second action of Givenchy
The Battle of Loos
The Division took part in the initial assault north of the Vermelles-Hulluch road, facing the Quarries and a series of strongpoints. Suffering badly from British cloud gas – which was not moved sufficiently by the gentle breeze – and badly cut up by German machine gun fire and artillery, the Division nonetheless seized the Quarries and only failed to penetrate the third German line due to the relative weakness of the numbers of men that got through. The Divisional Commander, Major-General Thompson Capper, died of wounds received during this action.
The Battle of Albert* in which the Division captured Mametz
The Battle of Bazentin and the attacks on High Wood*
The Battle of Delville Wood*
The Battle of Guillemont*
The battles marked * are phases of the Battles of the Somme 1916
Operations on the Ancre
The German retreat to the Hindenburg Line
The Arras offensive in which the Division fought in the flanking operations round Bullecourt
The Battle of Polygon Wood+
The Battle of Broodseinde+
The Battle of Poelcapelle+
The Second Battle of Passchendaele+
The battles marked + are phases of the Third Battle of Ypres
A major change now occurred with 7th Division being one of five British formations selected to be moved to Italy. This was a strategic and political move agreed by the British Government at the request of the Allied Supreme War Council, as an effort to stiffen Italian resistance to enemy attack after a recent disaster at Caporetto. Many diaries at this time, by men who had witnessed slaughter in the floods of Passchendaele, talk of the move and Italy as being “like another world”. Much work was done preparing to move into the mountainous area of the Brenta, but eventually the Division was instead moved to the line along the River Piave, taking up positions in late January 1918. In October 1918 the Division played a central role in crossing the Piave, the Battle of Vittoria Veneto and the eventual defeat of Austria-Hungary.
14 Victoria Crosses were awarded to men of the 7th Division, which from October 1914 to the Armistice suffered a total of approximately 68,000 of all ranks killed, wounded or missing in action.