George William Cave Harris was born in Bareilly, Bengal, India on 28th February 1891 to George Edward Harris and Fanny Albena Harris [née Evers]. At the time of his birth George’s father was garrisoned in India where he was a professional soldier with the rank of Pioneer Sergeant. However within a few short years his father was dead and so George was forced to return to England with his widowed mother who later re-married Thomas Henry Crook, thereby opening the door to his education at Wellington College.
Once his education was complete George enlisted in the Army himself [Service No 9927]. By 1911 he was back in India serving with the 2nd Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, who at the time were engaged on garrison duties based at the British Infantry Barracks (Wellesley) in Mhow.
On the outbreak of the First World War the Battalion was located in Wijnberg, South Africa when they were recalled back to England arriving in Southampton on 30th October 1914, and then taken by train to Hursley Camp, near Winchester. The following day they received their mobilisation orders and after a tortuous channel crossing in appalling weather arrived in Le Havre aboard the troop ship ‘SS Lake Michigan’.
Christmas Day 1914. “The Germans began shouting Christmas greetings in the early morning and there was no firing throughout the whole day. During the afternoon some of our men & the Germans went into the open outside No 1 section to bury some German dead which had been lying there for some time.”
On 10th March 1915 the Battalion undertook their first major offensive – The ‘Battle of Neuve Chappelle’. The village of Neuve Chappelle lies on the road between Bethune, Fleurbaix and Armentieres, near the junction with the Estaires – La Bassée road. The two front lines ran parallel with the road between Bethune and Armentieres, which is a little to the east of the village. Behind the German lines is the Bois de Biez and here the ground is flat and bisected by many quite small drainage ditches. A mile ahead of the British lines was a long ridge: AUBERS RIDGE, only approximately 20 feet higher than the surrounding terrain but giving an observation advantage to the occupier. Some 15½ miles to the south, this flat area of land is overlooked by the heights at VIMY RIDGE. The German lines in the vicinity were very lightly defended and so seemed right for the taking. This battle came about because the British general staff needed to show the French that they were ‘doing their bit’ and it was important to show that British regiment’s were shouldering some of the burden. The night before it was wet with light snow, turning to damp mist; not ideal, but allowing for the conditions the attack was successful in part as it forced the Germans to bring in reinforcements from other areas.
As a result the decision was taken to launch a follow-up attack on 9th May 1915 on Aubers Ridge by means of a two pronged assault on the occupying force of Germans positioned there, and was to be in support of a larger French offensive at nearby Vimy Ridge. The target positions that the 2nd East Lancs Regiment, along with other British and Indian units, had been given were extremely heavily fortified. The plan, as set out on paper, called for a 40 minute long artillery bombardment with the brigades in the lead advancing, approximately 6000 yards apart, in a pincer movement. This would then roll back the German front line with the Allied units advancing to take the enemy positions on Aubers Ridge, about 1½ miles ahead of the starting line.
However, as so often happens when a battle plan, made in the comfort of a rear HQ, makes contact with reality on the ground, with the opposing forces playing by different rules, the result is rarely as predicted. The ‘Battle of Aubers’ was once such instance, and what transpired was a complete and unmitigated disaster for the British Army: no ground to speak of was won and no tactical advantage gained.
At 2.30am on 9th May all the Battalions involved in the northern pincer movement report that they are now in position, having been brought forward to the assembly point the previous night. With sunrise at 4.06am all remains quiet along the front. At 5.00am the British artillery open fire with field guns firing shrapnel at the German wire and the howitzers firing High Explosive [HE] shells onto the German soldiers in the front line trenches.
The attacking British forces also had to avoid being killed by their own side as many of the shells being fired were falling short, with some on and behind the British front line. This was later found to be due to faulty ammunition and excessive wear and tear on the gun barrels.
At 5.20am the men of the 2nd East Lancs went ‘over the top’ under cover of the artillery bombardment and began their slow advance across nearly 300 yards of No Man’s Land before they would reach their first German trench, from where they could see the enemy soldiers waiting, bayonets fixed, behind their parapets. Roughly 80 yards out from the German line they paused, lay down and waited for the bombardment to finish.
Before that however, at 5.30am the bombardment intensified for ten minutes when the field guns switched to HE shells. Several artillery pieces had been brought forward and fired at point blank range against the enemy breastworks blowing holes in the defences for the attacking infantry to pass through.
At 5.40am the attacking force rose up for the final push to the German lines and were immediately hit by heavy machine gun fire virtually annihilating the lead platoons. After regrouping they charged forward again to be mown down by incredibly heavy fire from eight German machine guns and rifle fire before they had progressed 25 yards. The survivors did their best to crawl back, if at all possible, to their own lines or to seek safety in one of the many shell holes and wait it out.
At 6.10am the 1st Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire Regiment) who were being held in reserve were ordered forward to assist the 2nd Lancs. They too suffered severe losses and were held up at the German wire, almost unbroken despite the incessant pounding of the artillery.
With so much chaos and confusion all around the men were forced to withdraw and no further attacks were launched. It was learnt the following morning that there had been insufficient artillery ammunition [some had been sent to the Dardanelles on the orders of Kitchener, Secretary of State for War], to continue the attacks as well as quantities with defective fuses meaning they would not explode on contact with wet ground, and other shells that fell short.
A conversation was duly recorded between General Henry Rawlinson (IV Corps Commander) and Brigadier-General Reginald Oxley1 [i/c 24 Brigade which included 2nd East Lancs] on the morning of 10th May when Rawlinson enquired of Oxley “This is most unsatisfactory. Where are the Sherwood Foresters? Where are the East Lancashires on the right?” Oxley replied simply “They are laying in No Man’s Land, sir, and most will not stand again.”
Of the 134 officers and men of the 2nd Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, who died on Sunday 9th May 1915, Lance-Corporal George William Cave Harris, aged 24 was but one in a list of total British casualties that exceeded 11,000, most of whom died or were injured within yards of their own front line! For an act of gallantry on his part during the fighting on the day he died, the details of which have not survived, George was posthumously recognised with a ‘Mention in Despatches’. Like so many of his fellow soldiers he was initially reported as ‘missing’ but his body was never recovered and so is remembered today on the Ploegsteert Memorial, Comines-Warneton, Hainaut, Belgium.
The Regiment was subsequently awarded a battle honour by King George V for its role in the attack at Aubers Ridge.
The East Lancashire Regiment is perpetuated today in the 2nd Battalion, Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment (King’s Lancashire and Border).