What I Know About John

For those just finding this blog, I thought I’d re-cap over what the results of my research and memories of John’s life have produced so far, and how they relate to prior and subsequent lives.

John’s life was the first of several past lives I’ve recalled, and it’s difficult now to explain one of them without explaining the others.

I initially found John’s identity from a string of memories in September and October of 2012. These included flashes of actual combat as well as a few memories of his life before the war. The memory that proved the most useful to me is the hardest to explain, because it involves seeing John’s grave as it would have been some time later in the 20th century.

A hardwood tree (which I initially thought to be an elm but later turned out to be a willow) was immediately to the right of a grave at the end of a row. There was at least one more row of headstones behind John’s, tucked away in a corner near the fence. The lot was shady and I knew intuitively that the grave was among other British war dead and in France rather than Belgium.  It also had a unique, relatively fence with angled bricks on top, very different from the usual sort of Commonwealth cemetery wall which is low and capped with flat or beveled marble.

I began my search using online databases of WWI cemeteries including the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Their website contains diagrams, photographs, and a casualty list by plot which helped me find not only the correct cemetery, but also gave me a partial name, regiment, battalion, and serial number. It also had a small note that he was the son of William and Jane Harris from Yeovil- perhaps a comment entered into the records by John’s behest, so that history would be able to find the correct J. Harris one day.

The name, rank, regiment, and serial turned up nothing in the way of service records; I can only assume the details of John’s medals, merits, and untimely death were lost to history during the Blitz when the archives were firebombed, but John’s service was not completely erased. Eventually, the information I already had helped lead a friend to a record lifted from “Soldiers Killed in the Great War” that gave me not only the first name John, but what town he was living in (Hereford), when and where he enlisted (Nuneaton. September 1914), where he trained (Copthorne Barracks, Shrewsbury, Shropshire) and when he deployed (5 February 1915), among other information.

More research into John Harris through civilian records helped confirm some of the other memories I had.

I know from records that John’s middle name was probably William. There is a record of a John William Harris born in June 1877 (the only source we have for a month) and I know for certain that John’s father’s name was William.  Whether or not this can be said to be connected somehow to William Longespee is debatable since William is an extremely common English name.

I also know from census records that he lived on Sherbourne Road in Yeovil, Somerset.  One particular house on Sherbourne Road is a good match for my memory of a partially-obstructed view of a railway line, as it is a tall terrace house very near Yeovil Pen Mill Station. However, John may not have actually lived in this house; census records are somewhat ambiguous on the exact house number. There is a field in the census forms that sometimes contains house numbers and sometimes contains arbitrary numbers denoting how many houses the census taker had done that day. If John did indeed live in the tens along Sherbourne Road, then his house would have been some distance from the railway station and is now a car park for an Aldi.

I know from subsequent census records that John had also lived in East Coker as a farm hand until he was an adult. I also know that in 1914, John probably lived in Hereford. I know his father lived on St. Owen Street there. St. Owen Street terminates in St. Peter’s Square, where a church and a Boer War monument stand. The church and the monument correspond closely with my memory of the place where John saw the now-famous recruiting poster, the ink barely dry on Kitchener’s mustache.

As for marital status, I am reasonably sure John was unmarried. I had previously come across records of a John and Margaret Harris married in Leominster; however, I have no reason to believe that this is the same John Harris.

John may have living relatives in New Zealand, most great-great grand nephews and nieces descended from his sister Matilda. Ancestry.com gives several generations of names, but the most recent generations are set to “private” so I assume they’re still alive. I have no means of contacting them and I do not know of any other living relatives.

John may have visited ruins, possibly as a hobby or as a favorite spot for dates. Features of ruins I recalled matched ruins in various parts of the Welsh Marches. Some of these ruins may have been associated with William Longespee who spent a substantial amount of time in the Welsh Marches.

I initially had thought these memories were of places I had been as a child among the crumbling ruins of rice plantations and English colonialism in the South Carolina Lowcountry. I used to play around the old plantations and summer homes like Middleton and Atalaya, though my favorite place was Old Fort Dorchester, a proper ruin of an English fort settlement and its parish church. In 2004 while home from England for a few months, I went looking for these specific ruins near Charleston, to no avail.

John, for reasons I can only speculate, chose to enlist in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry through a recruiter some distance away in Nuneaton. He arrived in Shrewsbury and took his training at the Copthorne Barracks in the autumn and winter of 1914/15.

I now know that William Longespee had also lived in Shrewsbury and was sheriff of Shropshire. Interestingly, though perhaps only by way of bizarre coincidence, his stronghold (Shrewsbury Castle) now houses the Shropshire Regimental Museum.

“Soldiers Killed in the Great War” goes on to tell us that John shipped off to France in February 1915. He arrived at Le Havre and was posted to the 2nd Battalion, attached at the time to the British 27th division.

I also know, from the few extant pieces of information about the 27th division, that John’s battalion took part in action not only at Bellewaerde Ridge near Railway Wood, but also at Hill 60, a low spoil heap fought over bitterly over for years because it was the only high ground on the Salient. This action also seems to validate my memory of the few standing trees at Hellfire Corner just beginning to fill out with buds and leaves. If not for John Dixon’s excellent book “Magnificent But Not War,” I would not have been able to confirm those memories.

Hill 60 corresponds with my most vivid memories of battle, a bloody rout in broad daylight where the platoon I was attached to got split up, then picked off by machine gun and shell fire. I had previously assumed this was a false memory because earlier sources I found only credit the KSLI with action at Bellewaerde Ridge. That was a night attack under full moonlight, more in line with the memories of dark fields full of bear traps and trees full of corpses in flashes if intense horror that I had.

I had a memory of the bolt on a Lee-Enfield becoming sticky and uncooperative in the heat of battle, but not completely jammed and easily coerced with a small hammer. While I can’t confirm that this is true, this seems to correspond with descriptions found online of headspace issues that are fairly common and easily remedied in the Lee-Enfield. With no time for a replacement and no work bench to fix it, the rifle had to be fired as it was.

I now know that, whether or not his rifle gave out on him, John somehow survived the Second Battle of Ypres and Hill 60. He was posted to the quiet sector of L’Epinette where he died on 8 July 1915, a few km south-southeast of Armentieres and only about 39 km from Bouvines, where William Longespee was captured in battle in July 1214, just shy of 701 years earlier. John is buried at Ferme Buterne Military Cemetery in nearby Houplines, in Row C, Plot 1.  John’s cause of death was most likely gunshot wounds, and though my memories hint at machine gun fire, a single Mauser round to the head is just as likely.

I suspect- but cannot prove- that I may have been at Ferme Buterne in my previous life, in the summer of 1977 (just over a century after John’s birth). I do know that I was in France at the time but the only area I can prove I traveled to at the time was closer to Verdun than Armentieres.

That said, the memory- or perhaps vision- of the cemetery corresponds with about the state it would have been in around 1977: with several trees of moderate size that gave a great deal of shade, instead of two large trees that leave much of John’s corner of the cemetery in partial sunlight as it has today. This memory, by the way, was confirmed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who informed me that the two trees at the front of the cemetery were cut down in 1994 because they had grown too large.

In short, as of this date, I have a fairly good picture of John’s life that corresponds well with the memories I’ve had. I cannot prove much of what I remember but what I have found is intriguing enough to build a strong circumstantial case for either having been John Harris or for somehow finding his memories.  Much information about John has been lost to history but the surviving information was enough to link specific memories to specific places and events.

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