The early years
John 'Jack' Harrison was born on 12 November 1890 to John & Charlotte Harrison at 20 Williamson Street, Holderness Road, Hull. John senior was a boilermaker & plater working at Earles' Shipbuilding Yard, next to Victoria Dock on the banks of the river Humber. Jack was educated at Craven Street School. A number of newspaper reports have him excelling at sports over the years. The 1901 Census recorded the family as living at 19 Brazil Street. Jack continued his education, and went on to follow in the footsteps of his elder sister Beatrice by going to York Training College, studying to become a teacher.
The 1911 Census shows him still attending the college and in residence there. By this time, his family was recorded as living at 107 New Bridge Road. Jack continued his sporting life in athletics and playing rugby with York College, in his last year playing around 3 matches for York City before returning to Hull in September 1912. He had been recruited to play for Hull FC for the 1912/13 season. On his return to Hull, he secured a teaching position with the council-run Lime Street School.
Ironically, his Hull FC Rugby career took off playing against York on 5 September with Hull FC winning 9-3 at the Boulevard. Jack soon proved himself and became a formidable member of the team playing alongside another new signing, William 'Billy' Batten. Jack went on to score one of two tries scored by Hull in the Northern Union Challenge Cup victory over Wakefield Trinity at Halifax on 18th April 1914 (Hull FC 6-Wakefield 0). During the following 1914/15 season he went on to score a record 52 tries, a record that still stands. He eventually scored a total of 106 tries in 116 matches for Hull.
On 4 August 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany, and the Derby scheme was introduced to recruit volunteers from the same towns and neighbourhoods to form 'Pals' Battalions. Jack married his lifelong friend Lillian Ellis in September 1914.
On 16 December 1914, the first attack on British soil was the bombardment of Scarborough and Whitby, when German ships sailed up the coast and started firing indiscriminately at the towns. Many innocent men, women and children were killed or injured on that day. The war continued in Europe with British troops suffering huge casualties, despite the belief that it would be all over within a few months.
On 6 June 1915, the first Zeppelin raid over Hull saw a huge amount of destruction with many casualties, especially around the areas where Jack and his family lived and worked. Jack's son 'Jackie' was born on the 29 June 1915 at 75 Wharncliffe Street, Hull.
Jack signs up
Jack was initially unable to volunteer for the army because he was in a protected employment as a teacher. Under the Defence of the Realm Regulations No 41a he was registered at Lime Street School as 'Attested', which meant he was fit and able to fight for his country and had signed to say he would serve, if and when called upon to do so. On 4 November 1915 he had signed up with the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps.
His last matches
Jack returned to Hull FC, playing against Hunslet, Bramley, Bradford, the Derby against Hull Kingston Rovers on Christmas Day (winning 27-5), with his final game against Broughton Rangers on Boxing Day before finally leaving for his training at Berkhamstead.
During the course of WWI, 12,000 troops passed through the training camp at Berkhamsted. They lived in a tented camp near the station, paraded on what is now called Kitchener's Field and trained on Berkhamsted and Northchurch commons and in the surrounding countryside. Under the guidance of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Errington, their comprehensive training included trench digging. With the area’s geology similar to that of northern France, they were prepared for the right conditions. The Inns of Court provided basic and officer training and other subjects including drill, musketry, entrenching, map reading, field exercises in open warfare, and lectures covering a whole range of subjects.
His military career begins...
Jack was commissioned as Temporary 2nd Lieutenant and assigned to the 11th East Yorkshire Regiment (Hull Tradesmen) 6 Platoon on 4 August 1916. The 11th EYR had already arrived on the Somme in March 1916 following a brief visit to Suez and Egypt from December 1915. Jack joined the regiment in September 1916. They were enjoying a break from the front in a supporting role behind the lines at Hébuterne, south west of Arras.
The regiment was back on the front again in February 1917. On 25 February Jack led a patrol into no man's land and for his action was awarded the Military Cross (MC).
The citation read:
Temp. 2nd Lt. John Harrison, E. York. R. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He handled his platoon with great courage and skill, reached his objective under the most trying conditions, and captured a prisoner. He set a splendid example throughout. —London Gazette
March and April was a busy period with the beginning of the Arras Offensive, including the Battle of Vimy and the Second Battle of the Scarpe. The British troops were experiencing heavy casualties. The Third Battle of the Scarpe began with orders for the capture of Oppy Wood and was set for dawn on the 3 May 1917. At the last minute the raid was brought forward to make use of night cover which had been dark, misty and smoky from the shelling and gunfire. This turned out to be the biggest mistake of all, as the early morning was clear and the men were silhouetted against the moon. The attack failed dramatically with exceptional heavy losses. Jack's actions during this offensive led to his Victoria Cross. Ordered to attack a wood near Oppy with the rest of his brigade, his platoon became pinned down by machine gun fire.
The citation for his Victoria Cross (VC) describes events in more detail:
T/2nd Lt. John Harrison, M.C., E. York. R. For most conspicuous bravery and self-sacrifice in an attack.
Owing to darkness and to smoke from the enemy barrage, and from our own, and to the fact that our objective was in a dark wood, it was impossible to see when our barrage had lifted off the enemy front line. Nevertheless, 2nd Lt. Harrison led his company against the enemy trench under heavy rifle and machine-gun fire, but was repulsed.
Reorganising his command as best he could in No Man's Land, he again attacked in darkness under terrific fire, but with no success.
Then, turning round, this gallant officer single-handed made a dash at the machine-gun, hoping to knock out the gun and so save the lives of many of his company.
His self-sacrifice and absolute disregard of danger was an inspiring example to all. (he is reported missing, believed killed) - London Gazette
Thanks to Anthony A. Wood for permission to use his research for this article.
Details of related collections held at the History Centre and a further reading list are also available.