Monday 12 October 2015

The Australian

The grave of Stanley Harris in Tyne Cot who
was killed on 9 October, 1917.
I'm a couple of days late posting this story, but I was distracted by a quick trip to TO to see my great niece.  As she's a Kiwi, this little piece of ANZAC history seems appropriate. 

I had fun researching and writing this story as it's, what do they call it, a dramatization based on fact.  It was inspired by a random picture I took of an Australian Lance Corporal of the 20th Battalion, Australian Infantry.  What I found interesting about the grave was the Star of David.  Of the 416,800 men who enlisted in the Australian Army in the First World War, only 2,300 were Jewish. But this amounted to 13% of the Jewish community then living in Australia. And of that number 300 were killed.  However, as I dug into the background of Stanley Harris I uncovered a few surprises which, with a bit more research, taught me more about the endless challenges faced by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in correctly identifying those who were killed. I also learned about the techniques and inherent danger of laying and marking wire.  

While I decided to fictionalize what I found out about the young lance corporal the basic facts of his life and his last days - including his trip to the wire - remain true.  And as I post this today, I've finally uncovered the most likely truth for the Star of David.

Stanley Harris

Harold Reginald Harris looked at the answers he’d given one more time before penning his signature at the bottom of the Statutory Declaration. Since his mother had died two years earlier, in 1920, he hadn’t received any correspondence about his brother. He was assured, that this would fix that. He’d be sent a photograph of the grave, a memorial scroll and the medals - the 1914/15 Star, the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal. 

“It had been five and a half years since Stanley enlisted - well, six if you count the first time when he got sick and they sent him home. He’d had to fill out the form all over again the second time: Age: 25 yrs, 11 month; Occupation -  Commission Agent; Religious Denomination: C of E. etc. etc...

Stanley’s youngest brother, Charles - you see, Stanley was the middle one - had returned from the War in March 1918. He’d gone over first, in September of ’15, and had a rough go of it.  He’d spent more time in the hospital than he had at the front, but never got wounded. Fancy that. He never quite recovered from the bout of flu he got in Greece - then he was in the hospital in Alexandria, in Cairo, England and France. Eventually they just declared him unfit and sent him home.  

From what he’d heard, the same thing had hit Stanley almost as soon as he got over there in February - he'd even ended up in the same hospital in Southall as his brother Charles. . .  just a day apart too. In Southall. That's where he’d met that nurse - Sister Agnes Mary Hayes; five months in England and then off to France at the beginning of August. They made him a Lance Corporal not too long after that.

But there hadn’t been much more once ‘e got to France.

Course, they’d all heard about the big push toward Passchendaele; the attacks on the village on the 4th and the 9th. The 20th had been right in the thick of it for the second one, just like they had in September when they captured Polygon Wood on the 26th - the boys had done well that time. But it was dry then. 

In the first week of October it had rained almost every day, at times drenching - the conditions were indescribably miserable - the ground a morass and it was almost impossible to move. On the night his battalion moved up to the front line, it had suffered heavily - men got lost in the mud and shelling; the support trenches caved in because of the rain and barrage and stretcher bearers 'ad a hell of a time making it forward.

Report from one of the last soldiers who saw Stanley.
They told me that Stanley had gone out at 4 in the morning, the morning of the 9th, when an officer had stuck his head in the dug-out and asked for two volunteers for taping. That was what they called it when they marked the paths out to the gaps in the enemy wire. 

Entry in the War Diary of the 20th Infantry Battalion
describing events for 9th October, 1917 and the
shelling that fell short.

They stuck stakes in the ground, or screw pickets, and they’d run white tape along them - they’d go out 50 or 100 yards. It was just about the time that the rest of the battalion was heading up to the “jump off point”. Course, he could’ve been with the other group that went up at the same time - they were going up to set up a forward report centre. Anyway, that was the last they’d seen of ‘im. Their barrage had started shortly after that. They heard it’d been pretty ragged - some of the shot fell right on their own wire - 100 yards short of the line.

So that was it then. They reported him as wounded, and then after the Court of Enquiry they said he was missing - and then in May, Charles was home by then, they reported him as killed. Buried him at Tyne Cot Military Cemetery - that’s the big one southwest of Passchendaele where a lot of our lads are buried.”

Tyne Cot Cemetery

The Cross of Sacrifice at Tyne Cot with a small
window revealing one of the captured
German blockhouses.
Graves at Tyne Cot surround one of six German pillboxes
captured by the Australians in early October 1917.

Tyne Cot Cemetery is located on ground captured by the Australians on 4th October, 1917 and one of the six German pillboxes captured was transformed in to an Advanced Dressing Station, the cemetery of which became the basis for Tyne Cot after the War. It is the largest British and Commonwealth cemetery in the world, with 11,900 graves, as well as The Memorial to the Missing, remembering 35,000 servicemen who have no known grave; the Cross of Sacrifice common to all Commonwealth cemeteries, was built over the original pill box capture by the Australians.

Post Script - a Word on the Cross and the Star of David

It seems the Internet retains pretty much everything.  When I first wrote this story I reached out to some knowledgeable folks in Australia via a First World War bulletin board enquiring about the possibility of a mix-up.  A year later one of the members sent me an email, pointing me to an exchange on another bulletin board, a much more active one with quite knowledgeable participants on which a debate was taking place inspired by a picture I had posted posing the question.  Unfortunately I never received that email, and it wasn't until today that I read the series of threads attributed to my post.

WIthout belabouring the various opinions about the mix-up, how it might have occurred because of the rules governing what was selected, the Star of David for those who are Jewish, or a cross for those belonging to the Church of England, the truth apparently lies in a much more benign and human explanation.  Without realizing the significance when given the choice between the two options for her son's grave, Stanley's mother selected the Star of David because she "thought it would look lovely on her son's gravestone". 

Post Script on Sister Mary Agnes Hayes

Of Nurse Hayes, I spent little time digging into her past, beyond looking at her service record which is available on the archives site of the Government of Australia. Like all such records, it tells us of her postings through the course of the war - from her short stint in England, to her posting to France in advance of the Third Battle of Ypres.  

In August 1933 Nurse Hayes wrote a letter to The Officer in Charge at Victoria Barracks, enquiring about directly contacting the family of Lance Corporal Stanley Harris.  After a brief back-and-forth in which she was informed that all correspondence should go through The Officer in Charge, nothing further has been retained.

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