How John Harris Died- My Latest Guess

Some time in late 2012, I had a memory that I interpreted as the end of my WWI life.  It was out of context, with only image, sound, and sensation so it was difficult to interpret.

The actual memory was as follows:  There were bright objects arching across No Man’s Land, loud explosions across the field, and I was sitting on a dirt bank overlooking the trench, holding still.  There was a sensation like a downward rush of air, a shock (but no pain), and the next thing I knew I was face down in the dirt with dust settling around me.  Then everything went dark.

I had other memories later, after I’d changed my mind about what happened, but these were probably just flights of fancy; I find that my earliest memories are often the most consistently reliable.

My initial interpretation had been that this was an artillery bombardment, but it raised one major question: why was I out of the trench?  Also, the bright, star-like objects weren’t consistent with the trails of artillery shells.

Also, the number of casualties in Houplines dating from 8 July 1915 is small; at Ferme Buterne (the cemetery where they buried soldiers who died before they could get to a dressing station), John is the only casualty from that date, and at Houplines Communal Cemetery Extension (where soldiers who died at the dressing station were brought), there are two, both privates, one from the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the other from the Royal Irish Regiment.  This is completely inconsistent with what I would reasonably expect from a direct hit from an artillery shell.

I got a break a while back when I first heard a description of a wiring party in a documentary about a dig at The Somme.  One of the things they said was that older soldiers of low rank were often called upon to do this dangerous work, and I know that John was 38 at the time (not 39 as his headstone states), old enough to have been most of his comrades’ father.  Furthermore, they also mentioned signal flares.  This was the first time I had formulated the idea that John had died during a wiring party.  At the time my best guess was that John had been machine-gunned but it didn’t account for the downward rush of air.  Also, I would expect a machine gun to produce at least some amount of pain even in the event of a near-instant kill; the death I remember was painless.

I’ve since found other accounts that state that not only were the bright flares sometimes called “star flares,” but that hand-thrown bombs were used against soldiers in these wiring parties.  The accounts I’ve found all mention that soldiers caught by flares would freeze in position until the flare died out.

This in mind, I now have a fair idea of what happened to John.  I believe that he was very nearly back to his trench when another round of flares went up.  He froze on the breastworks near the trench but was killed by a bomb or a small-order mortar, dying within the space of two seconds from massive injuries.  I believe his death was painless and quick… but I’m sad to say that if I’m correct about having been him in another life, his suffering didn’t end then and there.

I want to confirm this now.  I’m still looking for something- anything- that gives the circumstances of his death.  The only sources I have found to date say “Killed in Action” and while a regimental diary does exist, it would be costly to obtain the scans I need and the diary itself is at the Shropshire Regimental Museum.  I am waiting for the 2nd KSLI diaries to be published online but so far, only the 1st Battalion and 7th Battalion diaries have been made available.

If I can confirm that John was killed during a wiring party then it will be the last of several impressive confirmations.  I have already confirmed that he was a front-line casualty by virtue of where he was buried; I confirmed the location of his grave, one of the battle sites I recalled (Hill 60), and the home he was born in.  I remain strongly biased toward the idea that John’s memories are authentic, whether I was actually him or merely some sort of contact point in the living world.

Whatever the case, I want closure.  I’ve taken a very personal interest in John’s story and it means a great deal to me to know if these memories that have haunted me for nearly two years are true.

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