Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Our losses in the Somme offensive - Bertie Ward Harrison

I have had these posts in mind for all of July.  100 years ago on 31st July 1916, my husband's great Uncle, Captain George Brown Bird, was killed in action.  I will remember him tomorrow, as the 3rd August is the date that his commanding officer wrote to George's sister to inform her of her loss.

Just 3 weeks earlier, his brother-in-law, my husband's grandfather, Bertie Ward Harrison, had been badly injured.  Initial news was that he was expected to live, having been shot in the back and the legs.  This is the information which had been given to George Bird, when he asked after him, knowing his Company had been involved in house to house fighting in the village of La Boisselle.  It was a rum do - no-one knew from one minute to the next whether the house which had been held by the Germans shortly before, was still in enemy hands or had been captured (briefly) by the British. The village was captured  and held by the British on the 4th July, and it was on this date that Bertie was injured.  If you visit the La Boisselle Study Group page, you will see a map which is copyrighted, so I can't show it here.  Here is a link to some of the information about the area, and the huge crater (The Glory Hole) which was never filled in and is still in evidence to this day.

In the confusion of the dressing stations, perhaps George was misinformed, but sadly Bertie's injuries proved too great and he died on 5th July.  Initially he was listed as "Missing".  The news of his death was not passed on to his widow for some weeks.  Within days of this she was to hear of the death of her brother.  Her hair turned white overnight.

My husband has passed me the letters Bertie sent to his wife.   Just three remain. They sound so down to earth but all the time you can see he knew that the outlook for the fighting Tommies was not good. When he was in hospital it is clear he was dreading going back but all the time he tried to keep positive.  I guess many men wrote in a similar vein.  I have added a little punctuation as Bertie often missed it out, but I think you will see something of the man in these letters.  He was so good looking and apparently when he came home on leave, all the neighbouring wives would be round, as they thought he had film star looks and he brightened up their lives.  Knowing what we do of him, I think he was quite a character and I am sure my husband has inherited his wicked sense of humour from Bertie.  He was brave - he once had a shave in a lion's cage (for the money, which was always tight). He was a Bookie's runner for a while, but had some problems with that as on occasion he wouldn't put the bet on as he knew the horse and thought it couldn't run an inch, and then the blooming thing went and won, and he had to go to the Boxing Booths in Blackpool to fight and win the stake money back . . .

He and George will never be forgotten in our family.  Here are the letters:

March 14th, 1916:

Dear Maggie

I got writing pad and twist alright.  The Twist was a God send.  I had just finished my other.  Well dear, people seem to get alarmed over a bit of  a air raid.  I don't now what they would do if they had been like us for 34 days within a stone throw of the Gers and seeing your mates go under every day.  Thank God we are out for a 10 days rest and then we shall be among it again.  It's a treat to get away from it a bit if its only to get a clean change and a bath.  I think George's Reg. is following us for a rest.  I am going to try and find out today. . . . . .

I hope Edie  is keeping alright.  Also the rest of Friends.  I am glad Alice is getting a clever girl.  Let her write me a few lines next letter and see if she is improving.  Tell George to be a good boy and go to school and then he will be able to write to his daddy.  I hope baby and Agnes is well, also yourself.  I must close now.  Good bye and God bless you all.  from your Loving Husband Bert xxxxxxxxxxxxx

Over the page he wrote asking for a weekly paper after Maggie had read it, as "we never see one".


Dear Maggie

Just a line to let you know I have been here (the Gen. Hospital) nearly a fortnight, got a wound in the hand and it turned to poisoning, but glad to say I am nearly better.  I shall be leaving here any day but write back to this address by return.  it will follow me on.  I haven't heard from you since September 9th.  I feel so miserable.  I came down here from the firing line after the big advance so I expect my letters will be there for me when I get back.  I sent a letter from here a week on Saturday with a young chap, he was coming to England.  I told him to post it when he arrived but I think he must have forgot it or lost it. If you had received it I know you would have written back straight away.  I do hope you have got over your illness alright and that you are up again, its been hard for me not been able to get any letters.  Of course if this had not have happened I should have got them alright and got to (k)now how you were getting on.  I feel sorry at giving him the letter to post but I thought you would get it sooner.  Now dear dont fret about me I am alright again.  I shant be in the trenches for a week or so until I get moved.  Have you heard from George yet.  I would like to hear from him.  It looks as if the War will last a long time yet as we gain ground here we seem to lose it on the other side.  Its a treat to here our Guns sending the shells over our heads into there lines , the noise was terrible but the sights were worse.  I never want to see it again.  Well dear, I would like to tell you more about it but you will have to wait till I come home which I hope wont be long.  Write straight back.  Remember me to Mrs Wood and all.  Has Jack come out yet if not tell him to hurry up, we can do with the big guns.  I most close now, from Your Loving Husband Bert xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

March 14th or 15th (I don't know which he wrote)

Dear Maggie

Just a line to let you know I got your letter.  I also receives twist and handkerchief last night.  Well dear, I am glad you are alright.  Sorry to hear Mrs Wood is bad again.  Poor old Mrs.  Tell her to buck up, the War will soon be over I don't think.  Well Maggie, our Division is on Pass so in a month or two if I get through I shall be looking at coming home for a few days.  Men thats been in hospital have to wait till the last I believe, but it wont take our company so long to get through as theres only a few of us left, its the Bombers thats touching out every day, you see we have to get very close to the Gers before we can reach them with our bombs but its God help them same as it is God help us when they drop among you, there terrible things.  I have only just got my nerves right from the last big battle, what with their bombs and ours its a bit nerve recking.  I hope I come through alright for your sake and the childrens.  Tell Alice and George to be good children and go to school and then they will get on alright.  Poor Samy Brotherton I only so him in the trenches two days before he got it, he laughed away and we had a s(h)ort talk.  I never thought it would be the last time but its a old saying in the midst of life we are in Death and now I must close and Good bye, from your Loving Husband Bert. xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Bertie died on 5th July 1916.  He was 27.  Many years before, In Scarborough, a gypsy had told his fortune for him and told he he would die when he was 27.


  1. There is something very sad about these letters, you can almost feel the terrible times he was going through, it must have been heartbreaking for his wife.

  2. He believed the gypsy all along. On his last leave, he knew he's not see his family again. How awful saying goodbye.

    If only he hadn't been hospitalized, he would have had all his mail instead of having no link with home and family.

  3. These letters make the war so immediate.

  4. I agree with you hart. It is inconceivable to imagine how it was for our men out there, the sights, the smells, the horror. I wasn't sure whether to share these letters, as they are very personal to our family, but I wanted Bertie to stay alive in our hearts and minds.

  5. The letters give a real insight into the man, it must have been devastating for his wife when he was killed and she was left to struggle on with three young children.