Eyes brown, Hair dark brown, Complexion dark
Harrison Family Background
In preparing this story, we acknowledge with thanks the late Neville Kidd’s extensive research and the contributions of the FFFAIF.
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Roy Harrison was the third son of George and Agnes (nee Cummings) Harrison. He was born on 28 May 1889 in Yass, southern NSW. His brother Vyvyan was born in 1885 and Cecil in 1887. All three sons served in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), Roy in the Infantry and his brothers were Troopers in the Light Horse Regiments.
George and Agnes were originally from England. They married in Paddington, New South Wales in 1882 and the family moved to Yass after Vyvyan was born. George was involved in politics in Yass, serving many years as an alderman and he once ran for the Yass Plains legislative seat.
The boys attended schools in Yass, which was known to have a good school and, as they got older, in Goulburn. In Roy’s early school years, his brother Vyvyan received some notoriety when he and three friends tried to save several boys from drowning while they were on a Yass Public School Cadets outing.
After his early schooling, Roy studied accountancy and, in early 1914, he went to work as a Bank Officer at the (now) Commonwealth Bank’s Head Office in Sydney. Although he had been at the Bank for only six months when he enlisted, his staff card described him as a ‘first-class man, particularly reliable and competent in his role as an examiner with the Savings Bank Department’. [Source Reserve Bank of Australia Museum]
In addition to being considered a competent clerk, it seems Roy also had good friends. He was best man at a large wedding in early 1914 which had many of his friends, family and the mayor of Goulburn in attendance.
All three Harrison sons went into banking careers as Cecil worked as a clerk at the Australian Bank of Commerce and Vyvyan was also a bank clerk with the London Bank of Australia in Sydney.
The boys’ mother, Agnes, had died in 1912 and Roy and Cecil both listed their father as next of kin when they enlisted in August 1914 and January 1915 respectively. Sadly, George, died in June 1915 aged 62 and next of kin was changed first to their brother Vyv but after his enlistment to Vyv’s wife, Margaret Harrison.
Roy was engaged to Emily Ellis (1889-1977) but they did not marry before he went to war. They corresponded regularly throughout his war service.
Into to the Military
Roy had begun his military service with the Citizens Military Forces in the Scottish Rifle and Woollahra Infantry Regiments, serving from 1908 to 1914 and rising to the rank of Lieutenant.
He was among the first to answer the call to the War in Europe and enlisted in the newly formed Australian Imperial Force on 17 August 1914. He was accepted as an officer and given the rank of 2nd Lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion. His friends gave him a silver cigarette case inscribed, “To Lieut. Harrison, from Jeff & Sum, 16/9/14”.
On 18 October, Roy embarked from Sydney aboard HMAT A23 Suffolk. They then joined the first convoy of AIF ships bound for overseas service which departed from Albany, Western Australia on 1 November 1914. Roy landed in Egypt and remained there until heading for Gallipoli in April 1915.
Gallipoli – the landing, Lone Pine, evacuation
The 2nd Battalion left Alexandria for Gallipoli on 4 April 1915, with a stop on the Greek island of Lemnos before departing for the landing at Anzac Cove.
On 25 April 1915, the 2nd Battalion came ashore in the second and third waves. Roy’s Company was successful in their initial attacks, but counter-attacks by the Turks forced them back. Two other Companies from the 2nd Battalion were able to take and hold a vital junction between two positions known as "Walker's Ridge" and "Russell's Top". Three days later Roy’s Battalion was relieved and went back to the beach, in reserve.
With many soldiers lost in the battle, reorganization was needed. As part of this, Roy was appointed the role of Adjutant on 14 May. The official war diaries for the 2nd Battalion for May through December are in his handwriting.
The Turks launched an attack on 18 May, which had the heaviest artillery bombardment of the campaign to that point. With only limited machine-guns and with bad light hindering the Australians’ supporting artillery, the job of turning back the Turkish assault fell to the riflemen. By maintaining strict firing discipline, they held. By 24 May, the attack had been defeated and a brief truce was called for both sides to bury the dead.
On 21 June 1915, Roy was promoted to Captain.
In early August, the 2nd Battalion had moved to be in the initial assault at Lone Pine. After gaining possession of the main enemy line, there were counter-attacks for the next three days, but the Australians were able to hold them off.
Roy wrote in detail of his experiences at Lone Pine to his fiancée, Emily Ellis on 20 August 1915 [Source: FFFAIF, DIGGER, Issue 52, September 2015] comparing the different responses of the men before the landing at ANZAC cove as raw recruits and their more restrained behaviour the night before “another flutter, namely the storming of the Lone Pine position” on 6 August: He wrote:
“The night before the landing was similar in a sense, but there was unrestrained skylarking & fun generally, for we were all strangers to war. On the night preceding Lone Pine, however, everyone knew exactly what to expect, and there was no foolery.”
In the following extracts, Captain Roy Harrison went on to describe the Battle of Lone Pine:
“Promptly at 5.30 pm the 2nd, 3rd & 4th Bns rushed over our parapets, and in spite of shrapnel, machine guns & rifle fire, carried the trenches with the bayonet. The 2nd Bn, as I told you in a former letter, had the toughest job of the lot, for we had to cross 160 yards of clear ground, with a small valley in the centre, and attack trenches with heavy overhead cover and protected by barbed wire entanglements.” ……….
“The colonel & I crossed with the 4th wave, & as their machine guns & artillery were waiting for us, we got some hurry up. Those of us who were lucky enough to miss the bullets, tumbled into the enemy trenches without loss of time. The place was choked with dead & wounded, and in many places, it was impossible to avoid walking over the dead.”………………………
“The sights & sounds come up to anything I have yet read, and surpassing my wildest dreams as to what war really means.”……………………….
“The moral effect of our last & previous attacks has been great. One Turkish sergeant who was captured said, ‘We will go out to meet the French, we will wait for the British to come up to our trenches, but the Australians we will not face, and no amount of driving will make us do so’. That is a reputation to win, and the Turk himself has the name of being a very stubborn man when fighting on the defensive.”……….
After the battle, Roy returned to the role of Adjutant and, having been through two major battles, Roy looked back on the heavy toll his unit had suffered. He reflected in his letter to Emily on his luck and on keeping a positive outlook:
“It is now just over a year since I joined this Bn when it was raised (17th August) but what a change! Out of 1023 officers & men who sailed from Sydney ten months ago, there are 5 officers & about 60 other ranks left. “…………..
“However, all troubles soon pass over, and here I am in good health; living pretty well, sleeping well; and only a bullet hole in my left sleeve, and a couple of tears in the jacket from bomb splinters, to show that two weeks ago today we were fighting all out for very existence.”
After Lone Pine, small skirmishes continued and the Australians were mainly involved in defensive actions.
Finally, the order to begin the evacuation of Gallipoli was given on 8 December and just before dawn on the 20th the evacuation of the 2nd Battalion was complete. Roy was the only original officer from the 2nd Battalion to stay for the whole of the campaign.
Roy arrived in Alexandria, Egypt on 28 December 1915 and he was promoted to Major on 2 February 1916.
With the heavy losses at Gallipoli and the many new recruits arriving from Australia, a complete reorganization of the troops was underway. Roy was reassigned to the newly formed 54th Battalion on 19 February. Training of the old and new hands continued.
The call to the Western Front came on 20 June and the 982 soldiers of the 54th Battalion left Egypt. They sailed to Marseille via Malta on the H.T. Caledonian to join with the British Expeditionary Force. After a 10 day trip, the troops disembarked in France and were put on trains for the three day trip to Thiennes, 30 kilometres west of Fleurbaix.
According to the unit’s war diaries (AWM), by 2 July 1916 the Battalion was billeted in barns, stables and private houses for a week of training. This now included use of gas masks and exposure to the effects of the artillery shelling. It was hoped that these tests would “inspire the men with great confidence.” On 10 July they were moved to Sailly sur la Lys and on the 11th they were into the trenches in Fleurbaix. The health and spirit of the troops was reported as good.
After a few days experience in the trenches, the Battalion moved back to billets in Bac-St-Maur. Roy wrote again to Emily on the 15th. With his Gallipoli experience, the tone in this letter was certainly circumspect.
“By the time this reaches you, the result will be known to you through the paper, so, failing any bad news, you may take it that all is well… It is no use worrying as I am quite satisfied that what is to be, will be, and nothing can alter it for good or evil… The men don’t know yet what is before them, but some suspect that there is something in the wind. It is a most pitiful thing to see them all, going about, happy and ignorant of the fact, that a matter of hours will see many of them dead; but as the French say ‘C’est la guerre’.”
An attack was planned on the 17th, so they went back into the trenches. However, the attack was delayed due to the weather. The weather soon improved and by 2.00 pm on 19 July they were in readiness for the attack on the Germans.
The attack began at 5.50 pm. There was heavy artillery and machine gun and rifle fire, but the 54th were able to advance rapidly and they occupied the German trenches by 6.00 pm. Some of the advanced trenches were just water filled ditches.
Fighting and shelling continued throughout the night. With heavy losses and the German counterattacks, the Australians were eventually forced to retreat. The 54th were pulled all the way back to Bac-St-Maur, 5 kilometres from the front by 7.30 am on the 20th.
In this very short period of time, about 250 of the 982 soldiers of the 54th that left Egypt were recorded as killed or missing.
Having survived the whole of the Gallipoli campaign with only some bullet holes and shrapnel tears in his uniform, Roy’s good luck had run out.
As reported by 4279 Private Arthur P. CAMERON, C Company:
'At Fleurbaix, on the evening of the 19th July last, an attack was made on the German trenches; Harrison led the charge, and when just over the top of the Australian trenches, in No Man's Land, he was shot through the head. He fell dead and his body was recovered and was buried at Fleurbaix Cemetery, on the main road to Armentieres.'
Pte 4356 Francis A. COLLS said that he had seen Roy’s body at 6 pm about 30 yards from the German wire and 3041 Pte 3041 John G. ELLIS, and Pte 4229 Fred ROUNSEVELL also confirmed Roy had been killed and that during the retreat "Major Harrison was picked up dead on the field".
While these post-battle interviews confirmed Roy’s death and suggested the retrieval of his body from No-Man’s-Land, there were no records of his burial by the Australians.
Major Roy Harrison was declared “missing in action” and his family were notified accordingly. On 26 December 1916, a court of enquiry in the field confirmed Roy as killed in action on 20 July 1916.
After the War – Roy ‘Found’ by his Friends
While their youngest brother did not return home, Vyvyan and Cecil survived the war and returned to Australia. Roy’s fiancée, Emily, eventually married in 1947.
After the war, the Imperial War Graves Commission undertook a major effort to locate missing soldiers, an extensive list that included Roy. In November 1921, a body in an officer’s uniform was uncovered at a site with no cross, not far beyond the Australian front line where Roy led his men into the battle. The only real means of identification was the silver cigarette case Roy’s friends had given to him before his departure: “To Lieut. Harrison, from Jeff & Sum 16 / 9 / 14”.
Roy had been ‘found’….by his friends.
In 1922, Roy’s body was exhumed and he was given a proper burial and headstone in the Rue-Petillon Military Cemetery, Plot I, Row D, Grave No. 20, France.
Much of the research for Roy was undertaken by Neville Kidd 1922-2018 and is in his book ‘An Impression Which Will Never Fade’ (2000). Neville was a long time campaigner for the recognition of The Battle of Fromelles.
The real significance of recognizing the men who lost their lives in this war is best captured in Neville’s own words from a visit he took to the Western Front in 1990:
“Prior to entering Rue-Petillon Cemetery, I had undergone at earlier war cemeteries we had visited, singularly unusual impressions and stirrings of emotions, but here as I approached the resting place of my hero, I experienced vibrations and feelings of considerable intensity.
I do not know how long I half knelt before his headstone, and later after visiting Maxted’s grave (Roy Harrison’s Padre and friend), how long I knelt at the base of the War Stone and stared in silent prayer at the Great Cross of Sacrifice.
I actually dissolved and lost all physical notion of space and time. At rare times in my life I have had a much milder version of this type of sensation, but nothing so intense and, as I gathered from John Laffin (travelling companion) later, nothing so sustained. As we were leaving Rue Petillon Cemetery I apologised to him for having tarried and he said, “I know exactly where you have been – there is no need for any apology.
The AIF on the Western Front have this effect on many of us.” He meant it, and I knew I was in good company, living and dead.”
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