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.

Memory Fragment

I had a memory of a training camp in France, around 1915.  

They had us learn to dig trenches, working at it all day long.

An officer stood over me.  “Put your back into it!  They’re shooting at you!  Dig!  Dig!” he shouted practically in my ear.  The ground had the consistency of peat and came loose in dense clumps.  It stuck to everything and had a slight acid smell to it.

The field had been the site of some mayhem in medieval times; several of us found medieval arrow heads and I think someone else found a broken spear tip.  We were either in or near Normandy, where I may have trained as a knight more than 700 years earlier.

We had a model redoubt about 100 square yards by the time we were done that day.  It was a very basic trench, with little more in the way of refinements than firing steps and small wooden shelters.  

Side Project

One of the many side projects I’ve got going is to build a catalog of all the known or likely soldiers of the 2 KSLI killed on the Western Front using data from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

I’m starting with the most challenging, the Menin Gate.  Unlike many monuments and cemeteries, the Menin Gate does not give a battalion number so I have to use a bit of logic.  Any casualty listed within the date range of the Second Battle of Ypres is included in my list.  The 2nd battalion was the only KSLI battalion on the Salient during those dates as far as I can tell so it’s mostly a matter of tediously noting down the dates and sorting out the 2nd Battalion from other battalions on the Salient at earlier or later dates.

I’ll also take down names and dates from 2 KSLI casualties buried on the Ypres Salient.  From this I should get a solid figure for exactly how many the battalion lost during that battle.

If time allows, I’ll add in the known losses from the Salonika campaign as well.

I don’t think anyone has ever done this before.  I may see about making this work available for whoever wants it because it could be of interest to researchers.  There is very little data on the movements, losses, and actions of the 27th division in general and absolutely no divisional history, which I feel is a tremendous shame given what they had to put up with in Flanders.

It’s funny, two years ago, I couldn’t have cared less about the finer points of military history…  How things change!

It’s Still There

I’ve had almost no flashbacks of my life as John for some time now, and most of the time I’m left thinking “What the hell happened?” while feeling as if I have more immediate things to angst over.

Last night, though, I had another dream to remind me that John’s ordeal is still just under the surface.

It started off as the sort of dream I have regularly in this life; a dream about driving (or riding) down long, narrow, two-lane highways with no particular destination in mind.  But at some point, it turned into a trip to Ypres in the present day.

In fact, it was a dream of the trip I plan to take with my father next year.  We were standing near one of the many large cemeteries and I noticed a massive mound of dirt, probably about 40 feet high by 50 feet wide by 200 feet across.  The mound, it was understood, was a mass grave of some sort with tens of thousands of bodies in it.  And then and there, the scale of the war really hit me in a way that facts and figures couldn’t.  

As the dream progressed, walking through the reconstructed town of Ypres with its replica medieval buildings that I had last seen as ruins a hundred years before, I felt numb.  I felt like I should have an emotional reaction, but I couldn’t.  The denial was immense, and the rebuilt town made it feel as if the whole war had been just a bad dream even though I knew better, because I had just seen the mass graves outside the city.

I guess I’ll have to live with this just under the surface for the rest of my life.  It’s the same impulse that dragged me across England not just looking for where I came from, but when I came from.  It’s always with me, and it always has been; the difference is, now I know why and I can never go back.

An Uncomfortable Thought

I have to say, I feel a lot better since making my last post.  Even if I didn’t say who I think I might have been, I sort of put my message in a bottle so to speak and got it off my chest.

Now I can talk about some issues that I have considered, which only make sense in light of my previous life and lead me to some disturbing questions about the nature of time.

Compare William Longespee’s life with John Harris’ life.  They are similar in weird ways.  Similar, but not the same.  Karmic opposites, almost, and occurring at very analogous times in history.

Longespee lived at a time when the Middle Ages had reached their peak, when Wales had been tamed, the Barons’ Revolt had been settled, and England was a solid territory.  There was a great flourishing of literature, knowledge, and mechanical genius in his era too.  He fought in Flanders and was captured in Bouvines, France.  Then after his death, about 125 years later, it all came tumbling down with a disaster.

John lived at a time when the Modern era had reached its peak, when the British Empire had reached its zenith, and rational positivism seemed to be the pinnacle of thought and achievement.  He fought in Flanders and was killed in Houplines, France, only a short drive from Bouvines.  But his death came at a time when the Modern era showed its dark side: the cold, logical application of science and technology to warfare, and the Modern Era is on its way out.

Now consider my previous life and my current one.  Once again a writer, once again living under an increasingly intrusive military-industrial police state where the imaginations of the paranoid are matched or exceeded by the machinations of the powerful.  Once again, reckoning with a feeling of being surrounded by the past, perhaps even immersed in it.  Once again writing, struggling, barely making ends meet out on the West Coast.  Damn me… I might be tempted to think, if I were less resistant to such ideas, that this was not a past life but that my current life is an illusion.

I often wonder if this idea of past lives isn’t just a silly pretext to validate our ideas of linear time.  On the other hand, if it is just a pretext, then this is really 1974 and 1974 was really the First Century…  and I really don’t want to think about that because it makes my head hurt.

Except there’s the sailor, Clyde or Clive or whatever my name was in that life.  That one seems to support the more linear notion of past lives, as does the unassuming vixen who lived in the hills above Takasaki, Japan.  And if these lives are more than just phantoms, they don’t fit with the seeming tendency of lives to cluster or pair into similarities.  At least, not yet.  Maybe I’ll discover lives that harmonize with those in weird ways too.

Perhaps the similarities between lives have more to do with my tendencies, my karmic baggage if you will.  That’s something described frequently among those who have looked into reincarnation.  The Buddhist explanation, so far as I can tell, is that our sense of self is precisely the sum total of those tendencies and attachments which kind of makes sense; it might explain why John unconsciously wanted to fight in Flanders like Longespee, and I spent a year and a half roaming England looking for John’s home.  You could easily argue we were actively looking to repeat our past lives, but unaware of our motives.

In all, the life I may have lived previously has some disturbing implications.  Granted, my memories are of a very ordinary life as a very anxious man. I have no memory of the unusual experiences I reported back then, but the thoughts I wrote down about those experiences come wafting back at me, nagging at me, daring me to ask if my current presumptions are correct.

By the way, check this out.  The building I take some of my art history classes in was built in 1915 (the year John died), and cut into the stonework is this motif.  If you’ve figured out who I might have been in my previous life, you just might shit yourself:


Probably a coincidence.  Probably…

Speaking of Ypres

I had another couple memories a few days back that I forgot to post, and both are relevant to Ypres.

Recalled Saturday March 2:

I vaguely remember the trenches near Ypres.

While Ypres burned, we had built our own city over the course of less than a year, a large city with trenches for streets, depots for shops, field kitchens for pubs, and filthy holes in the ground for homes. We lived like badgers or foxes, frightened creatures hiding underground. But instead of hunters, we had soldiers and artillery to worry about.

This city- this “New Ypres”- was a city under constant bombardment, a city half underground where the only thing that awaited you outside was a certain and violent death by at least five German machine guns. There was always gun and shell fire, but you always knew when there was a new battle, and you waited for the staff officers to call your brigade, your division, out for the next major offensive.

But life in the city went on. And aside from the shelling, it was quite ordinary the things we got up to.

The trouble is, the shelling and fighting just got worse and worse. It was only a matter of time until something flared up.

The noise that came from a battle was unbelievable. Imagine the initial explosions and the deep rumbling of a controlled demolition, only with hundreds of reports going off at once. The night sky would be lit by numerous flashes from artillery and rifles. When the shelling ceased, we buried our dead and repaired our defenses.

Recalled Monday March 4:

I remember the skeleton of a Frenchman who must have died in a shell hole that had later dried up.

It was near the edge of a wood, maybe five to ten yards from the tree line. The upper half of his body protruded grotesquely from the mud, his bony hands positioned as if he were one of the restless dead caught in the act of pulling himself out of his own grave. Really only the style of the helmet that still sat on his skull readily identified him as French; his elegant mustache now sadly gone along with the skin of his face, and the remains of a tattered uniform, once blue but now stained permanently brown, clung to his half-buried frame.

That same field seemed to be littered with pigtails, broken rifles, and splintered wood but not a lot recognizable as human remains right on the surface. Now and then you’d find a piece of a uniform or a limb but I think all of the recognizable complete bodies had been gathered, save this Frenchman. Very good chance he did drown and wasn’t found when they came and got everyone else, or it could be that his position close to the tree line kept the mud around him from being churned so badly as to bury or macerate him.

Thankfully I remember nothing of the smell of the place, but I remember no smells at all from that life, good or bad, so that’s not surprising. I imagine, though, that for all the human remains hidden just beneath the churned mud, it probably smelled quite awful.