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  • Claire Jordan

A Different Sort of Harry

Today, frankly, I wish I could somehow magically take all the attention currently being paid to a certain famous Harry and re-route it to a very different Harry who really and truly deserves our time, our sympathy and our respect.

Harry Phillips arrived in the world at Higham, Barnsley, Yorkshire, in late November 1892.

His Dad was the Clapham-born son of a hatter who for a while followed his father’s profession before marrying a Welsh girl, Hannah Baron and turning his hand to more secure work in the factories as his family grew. Harry had several older brothers and eventually one little sister, Annie, and another brother too, baby Norman.

But in his late teens, Harry made the brave decision to emigrate to Canada all alone.

His mother had been a Lancashire cotton weaver by the age of 14 and his Dad was now driving an engine for a cotton mill at Haughton. Mechanically-minded Harry perhaps wanted to forge a different path for himself, somewhere bright and new.

Finding work in Edmonton, Alberta as a machinist, he had just turned 22 when he enlisted at the very beginning of January 1915 into the Canadian Infantry, sailing back to England after six months’ basic training on the SS Eagle Point from Montreal that June.

By the start of August, he was again aboard a troopship, bound now for France with 4th Canadian Infantry Battalion.

Harry had about six months unscathed at the Front before it all began.

First, he received a gunshot wound to the leg in February the following year, the dread year of 1916.

They patched him up and in a matter of days, he was returned to unit.

Then things got much worse.

That June, Harry’s 4th Battalion were manning the Ypres Salient at a place called Mount Sorrel when the enemy, nervously noticing the build-up of men and guns pouring into the Somme region further south and suspecting Something Big was in the offing, decided to launch an attack of their own to divert Allied resources.

It fell onto the unsuspecting Canadian boys just south-east of Ypres, onto Harry Phillips.

It was a bitter, bloody fight; the Germans initially overwhelmed the Canadians holding the high ground at Mount Sorrel but they rallied and counter-attacked, eventually forcing the Germans to retreat.

Harry, his gunshot wound barely healed, somehow made it through June at Mount Sorrel.

Then came his Battalion’s big attack on the entrenched enemy position there on 8th July.

The Battalion CO wrote immediately afterwards that the bombardment which we had intended to cut the massive three-rowed enemy barbed-wire entanglements protecting their trenches had failed utterly to do so, but that it was too late by the time the bombardment lifted and Zero hour was upon them, to do anything to stop the attack.

Most of the 4th Battalion Officers and those out in front when they rose as the whistles blew where immediately cut down by enemy fire; the German front line was very close, on the other side of the vicious wall of barbed wire, close enough to lob hand grenades at the Canadian boys as they tried to desperately cut their way into the metal wall by hand.

Two lads did manage to place mats over the first few feet of barbed wire, but were killed doing so.

If you got anywhere near that barbed wire, it bit through your clothing and deep into your flesh; the barbs hooking in, holding you fast. The more you struggled to get free, the wider the holes it tore into you. Meanwhile, you were a sitting duck, an easy target for the bullets and hand-grenades raining down on you at almost point-blank range.

Despite losing most of their Officers and senior NCOs, despite the hopelessness of the task in front of them, the Canadian boys kept trying.

In his report on the day’s operations, their Major lists the Officers who were hit, kept going, were hit and fell, and then of the Other Ranks, he writes:

“I consider the behaviour of the men as worthy of the highest praise.

There was no sign of excitement or confusion before the attack and even after they discovered the nature of the obstacle confronting them, they continued their efforts to overcome it, notwithstanding their casualties.”

And in the middle of all this was our Harry Phillips.

Later that day, Harry was sent back to the 1st Canadian Field Ambulance at Reningelst, about ten miles west of the battlefront.

His papers give the cause simply as ‘shell shock’.

After four days, he was sent about six miles south, to a Casualty Clearing Station at the big medical encampment at Bailleul.

He’s really not very far away from the noise of War here and he’s really not ok.

But down on the Somme, the Big Offensive had been launched so disastrously the previous week; the doctors and nurses were struggling to cope with the wounds they could see and had neither the time nor the tools to treat those they could not.

And so what do they do?

Less than two weeks after his shell shock is first noticed, he’s discharged from the CCS at Bailleul, and returned to his unit in the field.

Somehow, he held it together, he kept going.

A friend later said of him: “He was a man of rather reserved disposition, but at the same time, always seemed cheerful.”

He would keep going now until the following April of 1917, when he was once again physically wounded in action, by shrapnel wounds to the legs.

This time, he was sent back to Blighty to be treated; several months in the Western General at Manchester were followed by several more at the Canadian Convalescent Hospital at Woodcote Park, Epsom.

The medical notes all talk about his leg wounds, his scars, how far he can walk. No mention of his state of mind is made at all.

He spends his 25th birthday at Woodcote Park and I really hope some kindly VAD made a fuss of him that day. Perhaps a letter or a parcel from home.

The week before Christmas 1917, Harry was discharged, medically graded B3 ‘but likely to be raised within six months.’

He was sent back to Shorncliffe, the enormous Canadian army camp above Folkestone on the Kent coast, through which he had briefly passed on the way from Canada to France two and a half years earlier and what must have seemed like several lifetimes ago.

Would they send him back yet again?

Would they just keep on sending him back until he was finally no more?

He was due to attend another Medical Board at Shorncliffe on 14th January.

He knew his flesh wounds were considered healed.

We must forgive him for assuming the worst would follow and he wouldn’t be returning Home after all but straight back to Hell.

So just before 7pm on Friday evening, 11th January 1918, fellow soldiers in his barrack hut heard strange noises coming from the direction of his corner bunk.

Over they rushed to find Harry Phillips bleeding out.

His razor was still in his hand and he would not let them take it from him.

He’d severed his own jugular. He was soon gone.

He had made his own decision, after so long at the mercy of others, and had taken control of the one thing he had left.

When they removed his body from the bed, a pencilled note was found among the bedclothes.

It read: “Dear Mother, forgive me. I am tired of life.”

The newspaper article about Harry’s inquest which appeared in the Folkestone Herald of 19th January commented that one of Harry’s fellow soldiers at Shorncliffe understood that the impending Medical Board was being held “with a view to his being returned to Canada, as he had been declared unfit for further service, suffering from shell shock.”

This is nowhere in Harry’s service papers.

Shell shock isn’t even mentioned after August 1916.

Did he know that was a possibility?

Did he not want to take the risk of submitting to a Medical Board which could yet return him to the front?

Or maybe it just didn’t matter anymore, either way.

So now, 105 years later, under this quiet headstone at Shorncliffe lies not just the once 5’6”, fair-haired, reserved yet cheerful Yorkshire lad with grey-green eyes named Harry Phillips, but also the tallest tower of courage I know.

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