Nowadays it seems that researching your family history has never been easier thanks to the ongoing digitisation of records. The release of WO 95’s seems particularly poignant to me as it was a WO 95 that helped me finally answer a question that had been going through my mum’s family for several generations; the circumstances of the death of my great-grandmother’s favourite brother, James Henry Harris.
The normal aspects of James’s life that you can find through records are easy to trace. Born on 24 August 1884 at Rochester Row in Westminster 1he was the fourth child and second son of William John Harris and his wife, Harriet Louisa Harris née Farley. With William John, Amelia and Alice Maud ahead of him, he was followed by my great-grandmother Kate, then George, Albert Edward, Harry and May. James is on every census from 1891 onwards, first as a scholar and then as a grocer working in his father’s business (William John was a grocer/fruiterer and appears to have been teaching the same business to all his sons). He appears as a witness on the marriage certificates for Alice Maud in 1908 2 and William in 1909 3. The last time he shows up on any family event is to witness Kate’s marriage to her first husband in October 1914 4.
At some point, probably in early 1915, James did what many young men his age did and signed up to fight in the war. According to ‘family legend’ all five of the Harris sons signed up, but it’s only because James and George died that I know anything about their service, and so far the other three have eluded me. After signing up James was placed in the 7th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry under the number 11042. Using his medal card 5 I found that he ‘first entered the war’ on the 23 July 1915, and at some point was ‘K in A’, killed in action.
I might have left the story there. I used the recent release of digitised soldiers’ wills to confirm that this was our James (his service record is gone but his will leaves his effects to his mother and lists her address, which is the same as Kate’s on her marriage certificate). I felt there would be little more to find. But out of a sense of slightly morbid curiosity I decided to dig a bit deeper and find out what his battalion was doing when he was killed. I did a bit of basic research online and found no mention of major battles going on at the time, so I had to delve a bit deeper.
Using Discovery’s ‘advanced search’ option I did a search for ‘Duke of Cornwall’ restricted to the WO 95 series and found that I needed WO 95/2126. I had already used his Regiment Number, 11042, to find his grave on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site, and therefore his date of death on 12th September 1915. With some trepidation I found the right month in the WO 95.
I was expecting a bit of context, perhaps a mention of a heavy bombardment and the words ‘one OR killed’. I had been told by colleagues that generally you only get a name if the injured man was an officer, everyone else is an Other Rank or ‘OR’. So you can imagine my shock when I read the words: ‘Pte JH Harris was killed by a sniper whilst working in VC avenue’. At the end of the diary for September the list of the month’s casualties are summed up for a second time.
As my mum said when I told her, ‘at least it was quick’. His younger brother George died of wounds in July 1917, an end which was no doubt a lot more painful than a sniper’s bullet. James had been in France for less than three months, he was thirty one years old. He was unmarried and had no children, but was an uncle to several nephews. Three days before his death his sister Kate gave birth to a baby boy whom she named after him. I’ve never been sure if she named her son after him before or after she heard about his death.
I must admit, having this information gave me a sense of finality for James’s story. I always assumed that thanks to the Harris surname being so common, not to mention the family’s use of popular first names, I would never be able to knock down any of the brick walls and unanswered questions that have risen since I started my research. Now I can say that at the very least I’ve finished James’s story properly. I hope that with the release of the WO 95’s other researchers and other families will be able to say the same.
- 1. Birth certificate found via Free BMD, Parish was ‘St George Hanover Square’ which included Westminster ^
- 2. Marriage certificate of Alice Maud Harris and Alfred Charles William Latham ^
- 3. Marriage certificate of William John Harris and Wilhelmina Fredericka Koch ^
- 4. Marriage certificate of Kate Harris and James Ashby ^
- 5. Catalogue reference: WO 372/9/41430 ^