I might know soon how Pte. John Harris died.
The KSLI Battlefield Tours facebook group has become an invaluable resource for me, and they have been reporting troop movements and casualties on the 100 year anniversary of each date. Sometimes they have information about the action that killed soldiers; sometimes they do not.
I really hope with all my heart that they do have some information, because if I can confirm my memories of how he died, then I’ll have settled once and for all that I was him as far as I’m concerned. If not, it isn’t an immediate disproof but it does raise some questions.
For the record: My memory has me sitting on an earth embankment or breastworks, watching either star flares or some type of incendiary shell move down the line slowly toward me. There were men near me, down in a trench or shell hole. They looked frightened. One of those star flares or shells shined brightly above me, lighting the faces of the men in the trenches like daylight. A very brief moment later, I felt a downward rush of air push me to the ground. I saw dirt and heard dirt and gravel raining down, then darkness. No pain and no time to process what had actually happened to me.
I have tried to interpret this, and I’ve come to the following possibilities:
1. I was killed by a small artillery shell during a night bombardment. I have found evidence of this in the letter from a KSLI soldier at L’Epinette in June of 1915 who described intermittent use of “Jack Johnsons” (a small but powerful shell named for a heavyweight champion boxer of the time). However, this begs the question: why didn’t anyone else die that night? The only other record I have from that sector on 8 July 1915 is of an Irish soldier buried at Houplines Communal Cemetery Extension, the cemetery that served the dressing station at the old brewery along the Lys and across from the Town Hall, so he could have been wounded a day or two prior and died of his wounds. The lack of casualties seems a bit odd for a direct hit to the breastworks with that many soldiers standing there watching.
2. I was killed by a bomb or grenade during a trench raid/ wiring party. This one has some merit. It might explain why I was the only one who died and it might explain why I was out of the trench sitting on an embankment or breastworks. It’s possible that when the star flares went up, I froze hoping they wouldn’t see me. In a variant of this, I have had intuitions that I had sacrificed myself to save them but I’m not sure I trust this intuition.
3. I was killed by an explosion outside the trench like I remember, but it was something I hadn’t considered that got me. I had only vague images to interpret what happened that night in 1915; I don’t have a clear recollection. It could be that these things I saw happening did happen, but they happened for some other reason I hadn’t considered before.
4. This incident was at Ypres and I survived; I was killed later by sniper fire. This one also has merit. Official records and my memories both concur that sniping was taking about five men a week. I remember arriving in the trenches at Houplines in the Summer of 1915 to see a Mauser’s latest prey laid out on a stretcher being carried away and men who gave us grave, funeral-parlor smiles as we took our positions. However, I have no memory of being shot, aside from a non-fatal wound that took a chunk out of the helix of my left ear (a wound corresponding with a slight deformity I have).
This last one is problematic because if it turns out I was the victim of sniper fire, it’s unfalsifiable by its very nature. It is a strike against my intuition that the memory of that night is the memory of my death though, which makes my case somewhat harder to pin down.
It may well be that the blog entry’s excerpt from the battalion’s war diary states nothing more than “one man dead” along with the standard blurb from “Soldiers Died in the Great War” that I’ve encountered so often. That entry proved that John was killed in action, and the position of his grave confirmed that he was a front-line casualty, but that’s nothing I didn’t already know and the mystery would remain for now.