2/2840 – LAWRENCE HAROLD HARRIS
This story is the third I have written in recent weeks of medals that have been reunited with a “HARRIS” family – none of them related in any way. It is also yet another case of medals that have been missing for decades and family members having no idea when or how they disappeared.
The HARRIS family of Okains Bay on Banks Peninsula were some of it first occupants and long term residents. Edward William HARRIS (1836-1921) had married Adeline ANSEL from Newcastle-on-Tyne before they emigrated to New Zealand. They arrived at Lyttelton on the Steadfast in 1851. Edward and Adeline had bought most of what they required with them – plates, cutlery, tools etc all manner of things with which to establish a house. Once they landed the Harris’s discovered that there was no accommodation in Lyttelton and so made their way on foot to Governors Bay where they erected a basic tent-like shelter with an oilskin roof propped up with manuka stays. Here they stayed living off their boxes of household goods, ever alert to local Maori who were keen to see the contents and trade whatever they could. The Harris’s eeked out a settler’s living here while waiting for the Canterbury Company to release land on the Banks Peninsula for settlers. Edward and Adeline ANSELL busied themselves making cheese from which they made a modest living. A fearless and strong willed woman, Adeline would take the completed cheeses by rowboat from Governors Bay to Lyttelton and sell them, rowing there and back by herself.
The Harris’s were allocated a piece of virgin bush at Okains Bay which, once cleared would support about 40 odd head of cows/cattle. Edward and his young family all pitched into this massive and back breaking work, as well as pit-sawing the felled trees with which to build their first home – a small single room settler style cottage.
** The Harris cottage has survived and was re-located to the Okains Bay Museum, restored and opened to the public.
Edward and Adeline’s first child, Walter George Harris (1871-1962) worked the farm until he was old enough to marry Gertrude Ellen PEGG (1872-1955). They decided to try their luck at Reefton on the West Coast working both gold and coal mines however with no significant returns moved back to the family farm in Okains Bay.
Walter and Gertrude had a family of nine children, one of whom died as an 8 month old infant. Their first born son, Lawrence Harold Harris and siblings all worked the farm from an very early age; most married and had families in Okains Bay which between the late 1920s until the 1960s made them the most numerous family, and Harris the most common surname at Okains Bay. Today there is only one Harris family at Okains Bay – former generations largely populating the Okains Bay Cemetery.
Lawrence Harold Harris (known as ‘Lorry’) born at the Bay in 1895, apart from taking the lead in running the farm after his father died, took an active interest home defence as Europe descended into WW1. Being located on the Peninsula, surrounded with very high, steep rolling hills and being adjacent to Akaroa Harbour, Lorry had joined the territorial Coastal Defence Unit (‘K’ Company, which was an artillery battery).
By January 1916 the Gallipoli evacuation was complete and the New Zealanders were concentrated in Egypt to reorganize in preparation for operations on the Western Front. Lorry’s call to full time military service also arrived at Okains Bay at this time.
2/2840 Gunner Lawrence Harold Harris was selected for the NZ Field Artillery on the basis of his territorial service with the Coastal Defence unit. He embarked with the 10th Reinforcements of the NZ Field Artillery which sailed from Wellington on the HT Waihora in March 1916. The Reinforcements arrived at Port Said on April 30th and after settling in, Gnr. Harris went into the field on the Western Front, France in August. He was assigned to 11 Battery with whom he served with for the next 18 months. His first battle experience was gained providing artillery support for the New Zealand Division’s first offensive on the Somme River which lasted from 15 September until the 04 October, 1916. The Division was then moved to Ypres (“Wipers” as soldiers called it) in Flanders, Belgium for the start of what would be known as the 3rd Battle of Ypres, commonly called the ‘Passchendaele Offensive’.
This offensive had actually started in July 1917 and would progress through eight separate battles before the finish in November 1917. The one obstacle that had to be removed before this offensive was the removal of the enemy from Messines Ridge. On June 7th the Battle of Messines was initiated by the destruction of Hill 60 on which the enemy was entrenched. The Hill had been tunneled under and massive explosive mines placed to annihilate the enemy emplacement – it was highly successful but the assault had cost 700 NZ lives. Following this operation, Gnr. Harris’s battery was required again on the 12 of October to support the 1st Battle of Passchendaele. The fierce action during the assault on Bellevue Spur by the New Zealanders resulted in our darkest day in WW1 – 2,846 casualties (486 killed) in a single day !
It was during this battle that the enemy also employed mustard gas bombardments on the forward infantry and artillery positions. During the bombardment Gnr. Harris was rendered unconscious for several hours during the early morning hours of darkness. As he started to regain consciousness he felt his foot being kicked by someone (one of his own) who said “he’s a goner” and he was left for dead. When he did become fully conscious Gnr. Harris dragged himself to his rear trench lines before dawn. When he unexpectedly appeared at the breakfast tent, the gasps and looks of horror by all accounts produced ashen faces aplenty. Gnr. Harris then read his name on list of those who had been “Killed” overnight, pinned on the tent wall – he was NOT amused ! The NZ Division was relieved by the Canadians on 18 October 1917, and in November. Gnr. Harris gained his first rank stripe – he was promoted to Lance Bombardier (Lance Corporal equivalent).
Footnote: Lorry (left) and his friend who was invalided back to NZ with mumps one week after their arrival in Egypt. When Lorry got to France he sent his mate a message written on a 20 Franc banknote. In the 1980s, a numismatist in the Bahamas placed a request in a Wellington newspaper for help to try and locate the author of the message which he had purchased the banknote for his collection. A cousin of Lorry’s spotted the article and alerted him to it. Lorry, then in his 90s, and the numismatist made contact and discussed the history of message, Lorry’s friend having long since died – amazing that the banknote had survived at all let alone made it to the Bahamas !
On 1st January 1918, L/Bdr. Harris was again promoted, to Bombardier (Cpl. equivalent). The previous nine months of intensive field operations had taken it toll and Bdr. Harris was evacuated from the field with dysentery and general debility to St Omar Hospital, then a temporary military hospital, in Rouen.
Bdr. Harris’s convalescence at St Omar proved to be most fortuitous. It was whilst he was under the care of a little English Red Cross nurse the by name of Florence Annie ROBERTSON (just over 5 feet tall) that Bdr. Harris laid the ground work for a lasting relationship. Florence Robertson was a fluent French speaking scholar prior to the war and so when she joined the Red Cross to help the war effort she was immediately dispatched to France and ‘St Omar’. St Omar’s had been designated as the “St Omar Military Hospital” , one of the largest hospitals in France which in fact contained several allied force military hospitals within its walls. St Omar’s also housed the worst casualties who generally required long term care. When he was fit enough to go on sick leave, Bdr. Harris and Nurse Florence (whom he knew as ‘Flossie’) arranged regular meetings behind the church in Rouen’s Old Market Square – the place where ‘Joan of Arc’ was burnt at the stake.
The rest as they say is history … Bdr. Lawrence H. Harris and Red Cross Nurse Florence A. Robertson married in May 1919 at Gateshead and both returned to NZ in July on the Athenic to the Harris family farm at Okains Bay.
Being a farmer Lorry had been eligible for the Rehabilitation Farm scheme. The Harris’s were balloted a farm (a rugged chunk of virgin bush on the West Coast) at Mozzie Creek at Antonios Flat, Mawheraiti which is about 10 minutes out of Reefton. It was here they started their family – Joyce, Joan, and Harold were all born on the Coast; a fourth child did not survive. Lorry and Florence gave their all clearing and breaking in the land here, trying to make the farm pay but the effects of their war service had taken its toll physically and mentally. Illnesses plagued them and eventually the farm went bust – they were forced to give it up. Fortunately an unexpected inheritance from Florence’s mother after her death in England saved the day and gave the Harris’s an opportunity to break from the Coast and make a new start in Christchurch.
Lorry got a job working for a builder in Christchurch and honed his skills as a carpenter. He built a large house for his family at 353 Linwood Avenue and in later years built a second, their Sumner retirement home at 68 Colenso Street which they named “St Omar” in honour of the hospital Florence had served at and Lorry had convalesced in during the war. Their second daughter, Joan, was named after ‘Joan of Arc’ in memory of their meeting place at the Old Market Square in Rouen.
Daughter Joan said of her father, Lorry’s carpentry and building skill made him the ‘go to’ man for anything woodwork related and so was constantly in demand, always making something for someone – he just couldn’t say no ! Lorry left an indelible mark on Sumner and its people – everyone new Lorry Harris through his generosity and benevolence toward others. Lorry’s visible legacy around Sumner is the countless volcanic rock and stone fences and walls he built which abound in the Sumner community.
When he retired Lorry kept him self busy learning – he did many WEA courses and always on the go, be it making things, digging up artifacts, fishing, or out giving away vegetables and his fresh the fish to those who were doing it tough. Lorry also took up photography, primarily of NZ birds in the wild, of lakes and rivers and spent a great deal of time hiking into the back blocks of Canterbury in pursuit of this. His extensive knowledge led to a voluntary job with Forest and Bird and for over 20 years assisted in finding and banding birds all over NZ. In fact he was still helping to band birds at the headwaters of the Conway River in North Canterbury at 90 years of age ! (the birds by this stage were being bought to him)
Lorry’s sense of humour was personified by his ability to deliver one-liners. He could not stand show offs or people who big noted themselves – Lorry would cut them down to size with well crafted one-liner. A classic one-liner to three family members who had quietly gathered at his bedside during his final days, was delivered with his usual wit and directness – dozing, one eye opened he said “what’s the matter – aren’t I dying quick enough?” Lawrence Harold Harris died in May 1988 aged 92 and (ironically) and was buried in an RSA plot at the Ruru Lawn Cemetery, Christchurch (an RSA burial or ashes plot is free to a Returned servicemen). Florence (Flossie), Lorry’s wife of 60 years had pre-deceased him in 1980, aged 94.
Like so many of his era, Lorry was a somewhat bitter man when he returned. Bitter at the fact that veterans returning home seemed to be forgotten and received little help to re-integrate and get established in civilian life, and particularly with with so many veterans finding themselves in desperately poor circumstances and/or ill health (both physical and mental), or with wives, girlfriends and/or families whom had left in their absence. What really capped of Lorry’s distaste was his abhorrence of commemorative occasions such as Anzac Day or anything to do with honouring the dead. This is best summed up in his own words – “look at all these statues and memorials they built after the war to ‘The Glorious Dead’ – there’s nothing glorious about being dead” he would say, and “Lest We Forget – and they did !”– lamenting the lack of basic supplies they so desperately needed during the war – “they found plenty of money for those (statues etc) but couldn’t find enough for bandages and medicines when we needed it.” As a direct consequence of his experiences Lorry never spoke of the war to his family, never went to an Anzac Day or Armistice Day parade, and never darkened the door of an RSA (or ever became a member).
Awards: British War Medal and Victory Medal
Service overseas: 3 years 193 days
My search for a descendant of Lawrence Harris I felt should not be too difficult given the number that had lived at Okains Bay and those who did move generally did not go far beyond Christchurch. I began by determining which of Lorry & Florence’s children may have been still living, if any. My start point was Okains Bay to see if any Harris’s were still living there. Several phone calls to Harris families on Banks Peninsula resulted in unconnected families with the same surname – except one. Janice (Jan) Harris (nee CROSSAN) is the last Harris family descendants living at Okains Bay. Jan is the widow of Bevan Ross Harris. Bevan was the son of Lorry’s brother, the late Joe and Muriel Harris and therefore nephew of Lorry. Jan and Bevan had three children, Lorry’s great nephew and niece – Gary, Phillip, and Jacqueline.
Jan Harris was most helpful filling in the blanks for me – of Lorry and Florence’s children the eldest, Joyce Molly WHITFIELD formerly ATKINSON, had died in January 2017 aged 96. Their youngest and only son, Harold Edward Ernest HARRIS, had died in 1989 aged 62. But as luck would have it the Harris’s only other daughter, Joan Mary M, is a hale and hearty widow of 94 years young, living in her own home in Christchurch.
Needless to say when I called Joan she was both stunned and thrilled to hear I had found her dad’s medals. Joan put me in touch with one of her daughters, Sandy, in Dunedin who I was able to email the details as Joan was not on the internet. Between us we managed to verify Joan;s entitlement and make arrangements to get the medals to her.
I drove down to Christchurch from Nelson earlier this week and was honoured to personally hand over Bdr. Harris’s medals to daughter Joan. I found Joan as Jan had described – bright, sharp as a tack and a veritable mine of anecdotes and information.
Joan who told me she has been the only Harris family member to religiously attend every Anzac Day service to honour her father and mother’s First World War service. Some years ago Joan had bought herself a Replica set of her father’s medals to wear on these occasions in the absence of his originals. As far as Joan was concerned her father’s medals had disappeared years ago and were gone forever.
I spent a delightful few hours with Joan who showed me some fascinating items of memorabilia (see above), photographs of her parents in uniform, and regaled me with anecdotes of the Harris family’s life at war, Okains Bay, the Coast and in Christchurch, much of which I have related here.
Anzac Day this year will have a whole new significance for Joan. She will For the first time ever she will be able to proudly wear the original WW1 medals awarded to her father, 2/2840 Bdr. Lawrence Harold Harris, medals she never expected to see again in her lifetime … lest we forget