Harrison, born in Hull in 1890, played for York FC in the Northern Rugby Football Union in the 1911-12 season before next year moving to Hull FC and playing alongside record £600 signing Billy Batten, one of the game’s first superstars.
Harrison’s father, a plater and boilermaker at Earles shipyard, was determined he would not leave school at 12 like other boys in Hull. He encouraged his to stay on and go to teacher training at St John’s College, York, where he captained the rugby side and turned out for the cricket and swimming teams.
‘One of the most brilliant players’
Harrison went on to score 106 tries in just 116 games and became “one of the most brilliant players in the North of England”. He was fearless and outspoken off the field yet humble on it. One observer told how his “natural swerve, combined with a fine turn of speed, enabled him to make tries where others less brilliant would have failed. His modest nature on the field was noticed by everyone and even after a brilliant and successful scoring effort he was almost too embarrassed to face the applause.”
‘Son Jackie will beat my record one day’
Harrison’s record 52 tries in the 1913-14 season included the winner as Hull beat Wakefield 6-0 to claim the Challenge Cup for the first time. He had been tipped to tour Australia with the Great Britain side that year, but did not make the squad before war intervened.
Hull’s Liberal MP Lord Nunburnholme raised four Pals battalions from the city, which was to send 70,000 men to war. Harrison, who had married sweetheart Lillian just after war broke out, waited until she had their son Jackie in 1915 then joined the Tradesmen’s Battalion, the 11th of the East Yorkshire Regiment. They were based at a cricket ground on Anlaby Road, now the site of the KC Stadium. Harrison said he wanted to see little Jackie grow up to beat his try-scoring record for Hull. But a different fate awaited both of them.
The 6,000 men of the Hull battalions were sent to defend the Suez Canal in December 1915 and “spent four months digging holes in the sand” but by summer 1916 they were in northern France, facing the German defences at Serre. The heavily fortified village is where the Pals’ battalions of northern England – from Leeds, Bradford, Barnsley, Sheffield, Durham, Preston and Accrington – took such terrible losses on the first day of the Somme.
He bombed a gun post but was never seen again
The Hull men escaped the July 1 slaughter only when their attack was cancelled at the last minute. They were to see serious action later though; on November 13, 247 Hull Pals were killed at the Battle of the Ancre, the last major assault of the Somme. Harrison had joined the regiment in September 1916 as they were in a support role at Hébuterne, just behind the offensive’s front line. In March the next year, he won the Military Cross, leading his platoon on a patrol into no man’s land at Gommecourt and capturing a German soldier.
Two months later came the operation that was to earn him the Victoria Cross but cost him his life. Leading a night-time attack at Oppy Wood on May 3, he and his men became pinned down in shell holes by heavy rifle and machine gun fire. Harrison decided to do something about it and, after reorganising his men, armed with only his pistol and Mills hand grenades, rushed at the German position. He tossed a grenade at the machine gun, which fell silent, but then was hit and never seen again. His VC citation read: “His self-sacrifice and absolute disregard of danger was an inspiring example to all.”
"We are having a glorious time as far as weather is concerned. It seems just like a lovely summer's day today, whilst the nights have been fine, clear, and moonlight[sic]."Harrison’s letter to wife the day before he died
After several of Harrison’s men said they had seen him wounded and dragged into a trench by German soldiers, widow Lillian held out hopes of her husband’s return.
The Hull Daily Mail reported: “Mrs Harrison... showed the Mail a telegram offering her congratulations, and giving the intimation that her husband had been awarded the Victoria Cross. It was exactly six weeks since he was reported wounded and missing, but she still had hope he was alive and was a prisoner of war.
“There is a little son, aged two, also called Jack after his father. He was as blithe as a cricket in the room, and his mother said he was just like his father...”
The day before he died, Harrison wrote to Lillian:
“We are having a glorious time as far as weather is concerned. It seems just like a lovely summer’s day today, whilst the nights have been fine, clear, and moonlight[sic]. I am afraid though, that the Old Hun can see us through its brilliance. It reminds one very much of [the] cartoon about ‘her’ saying: “I wonder if this lovely moon is shining on him too?” whilst ‘he’ is saying, “This blinking moon will be death of me!” as he is crawling about in No Man’s Land. Ha Ha! You can't help but smile when you know the life on this side.”
‘So straight, so true, so brave’
Harrison’s body was never found and he is commemorated on the memorial at Arras. Lillian was given his Victoria Cross by King George at Buckingham Palace in March 1918. Army chaplain the Rev. R. T. Newcombe wrote to her: “He was my great friend. Before the battle he came to holy communion in the trench and... talked about you and the boy to me. Everybody loved Jack. He was so straight, so true, so brave, and his men simply worshipped him. Give my love to your dear little boy, and tell him he was one of the best Christian men.”
An appeal raised money for young Jackie’s education and he became a captain in the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment. Like his father he too fought and died in France, killed in the defence of Dunkirk on June 1, 1940.
Lillian died in 1977, leaving Harrison’s VC to the East Yorkshire Regimental Museum. It is now at The Prince of Wales Own Regiment of Yorkshire museum in York.
In 2003 a memorial plinth to Harrison was put up at the KC Stadium, the home of Hull City FC and Hull FC. An annual match between army and navy rugby league teams is played for the Jack Harrison VC Memorial Trophy.
Remembering the Somme
This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The Royal British Legion is calling on communities across the UK to take the time out from their daily lives to honour those who fell. We have created a Somme 100 toolkit which contains everything you need to organise a Remembrance event in your community.
Make your own commemoration to 2nd Lieutenant John Harrison or one of the other casualties of the First World War by simply placing a virtual poppy in their memory on our Every Man Remembered website.