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James Henry Harris

You might remember that a few months ago I wrote a blog post about my great-great uncle, George Harris, who died in the First World War.

Well on this day in 1915, George's older brother James Henry Harris died, also while fighting in the First World War. James had only been in action for a few months, his unit was sent to France in June 1915. However all of this information was unknown to me and my Mum until recently.

Starting at the beginning, James was born around 1885 in Westminster, London. He was the fourth child and second son of William John Harris and Harriet Louisa Harris, who went on to have five more children in the following years. James was followed in 1887 by Kate Harris, my great-grandmother. My Nan always told my Mum that James was Kate's favourite brother, I think her eldest brother William was a bit too old to be close as there were 8 years between them, and George, Albert and Harry were no doubt as annoying as younger brothers can be.

The Harris Boys, not sure which one is which though, the gentleman on the right is their father.

James' life is fairly easy to track, to a certain extent. He can be found on every family census from 1891 onwards, on the 1911 one he's a greengrocer helping his father in the business (William John had his own grocers and fruiterer's shop). He also witnessed his older siblings marry, his older sister Alice Maud married Alfred Latham in 1908 and William married Wilhelmina Koch in 1909, James' signature appears as witness on both marriage certificates. In October 1914 he then shows up on the certificate of Kate when she married her first husband, James Ashby.

Some time after witnessing this ceremony James signed up to go out and fight. He was placed in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, and "died in the war", as my Nan used to tell it. I don't know whether my great-grandmother found it too painful to talk about her beloved brother's death, or if my Nan forgot the details and so didn't pass them along to my Mum. But it's mostly been through the internet and some luck that details of his short service have been pieced together.

The first problem I had is that Harris is a very common surname, James is also a very common first name and many men weren't recorded by both first and middle name, so was I looking for a James Henry Harris, or just James Harris? My Nan had mentioned to my Mum that all the Harris boys were in the Duke of Cornwall's unit, but since I'd already found George in the Machine Gun Corps I knew that I couldn't rely on that info. While searching on Ancestry I came across the medal card above, since the information matched what I knew I saved it, along with two other possibilities (including one from a London Regiment which I felt was more likely).

I then managed to find a bit more information on the JH Harris in the above service register by searching Military Genealogy. I found that the JH Harris with the service number 11042 was born in Westminster and had been living in Holloway when he signed up, which made me 95% certain I had the right man. But 95% isn't 100%, and I was reluctant to say for certain that it was definitely him without absolute proof.

To be honest though, I assumed that proof would never come. His service record doesn't survive, 70% of service records from the First World War were destroyed by German bombs in the Second World War. I checked Ancestry every time free offers came up, just in case I had missed something, but there was nothing new for me to add.

Until recently, when Iron Mountain storage facility announced that it was digitising a collection of soldier's wills that it had been storing for years. It seemed a bit of a far-flung hope, there's only a few hundred thousand wills, and millions of men died, but I typed in his name, just in case...

He was there! I nearly cried when his name came up in the search results. I paid £6 and two days later a PDF arrived in my inbox. It's difficult to read as I've shrunk the image to fit this blog, but it simply says "In the event of my death I give the whole of my property and effects to my mother, Harriet Harris, 5 Hatchard Road, Upper Holloway, London". Not only does he name his mother, but 5 Hatchard Road is where his sister Kate listed as her address on her 1914 marriage certificate. Private 11042 is my great-great uncle.

This also means that I know for certain how he died. Eighteen months ago I paid a visit to The National Archives and went through the war diary of the 7th Battalion DCLI. I wasn't expecting much, James wasn't an officer, he was just an ordinary soldier, and it's normally only officers whose death is mentioned by name in war diaries. I was expecting to read the words "One Other Rank Killed". But at least I would get some context, whether they were being shelled or building up for a big push forward, I might at least know what was going on when he died. So imagine my shock he wasn't just named as being deceased, they even mentioned the circumstances.

Sept 12 - Pte J.H.Harris was killed by a sniper, whilst working in VC Avenue.

"Kindest Regards, form your loving brother, Jim"

Have a nice evening everyone.


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