Wetherby War Memorial - The Great War 1914 - 1918

Corporal John William Harper

Introduction
Gunter, R B N
Durrant, C M
Weston, C G
Kelly, K G
Armitage, G J
Durrant, H M L
Hargreaves, J P
March, G
Dukes, W
Fowler, R
Westerman, H
Kirk, J C
Wiggins, T A
Telford, G
Harper, J W
Alexander, H W
Mason, T F
Wilkinson, W
Brown, C
Adkin, J
Barton, F
Hobman, A
Webster, A E
March, E A
Miller, G
Hannan, E
Utley, G
Walker, F
Bygrave, E W
Chapman, E
Varley, N W
Bowen, F J
Byrom, F
Backhouse, S
Dalby, M
Crossland, A
Crossley, J S
Dean, R
Frost, A E
Hodgson, F H
Holt, J
Hood, W H
Hill, W
Kitchen, T
Linfoot, E
Metcalfe, J C
Marsden, J
Pawson, W
Precious, G
Scutt, T G
Shields,P
Wiggins, J
Walker, E
Wood, A
Young, T
Pratt, W
Taylor, H
Dawson, G W
Lister, J
Binge, T
Atack, G
Durham, E F
Precious, G R
Wheelhouse Smith, W
Backhouse, H
Swann, J W
Burnsides, G A
Coles, W
Kelly, H W
Miles, J G
Tapsell, K
Acknowledgements
Dardanelles

80487
142nd Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery
Died Monday 9th April 1917, age 24

Cemetery : Aix-Noulette Communal Cemetery Extension, Pas de Calais, France
Grave Reference or Panel Number : I.E.10

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Son of John and Jane Harper, of "Ravenscar," Greetham Avenue, Wetherby, Yorkshire.

John William Harper was born at Orton, Westmorland in 1892 to parents John, occupation, Farmer and Grocer, and Jane Harper. Baptized at St. Stephen's Parish Church, Kirkby Stephen, on the 18th September 1892, the 1911 Census details record that at this period the family had relocated to Harrogate, residing in premises located at 49, Dragon Avenue. John William, now aged 18 years, had at this juncture found employment at the London City & Midland Bank as a Bank Clerk, his father now being described as a Retired Farmer.

At some period between 1911-1915, the family relocated this time to the flourishing market town of Wetherby, the family residence being established at "Ravenscar," Greetham Avenue, Wetherby. Transfering to the Tadcaster branch of the London City and Midland Bank, John became active in the local Wesleyan community, his clerical skills no doubt assisting him in performing the duties of Secretary to the Wetherby Wesleyan Sunday School. A member of the Chapel Choir, it is unclear if this was at Harrogate or Wetherby, he was also a notable organ player and spent his Sunday evenings performing for the congregation at Bilton Wesleyan Chapel, Harrogate.

Enlistment & Training

Attesting for service at Tadcaster on the 24th January 1916, John was then placed on the Army Reserve Class "B," the terms of his engagement being one of Short Service Obligation i.e. "For the Duration of the War, with the Colours and in the Army Reserve." Authors Note:- John enlisted under the Derby or Group Scheme, i.e. he enlisted voluntarily before the implementation of the Military Service Act 1916, conscription. Joining the Army from Army Reserve Class "B," in effect he deferred his service to a later date before being mobilised.

On the 13th May 1916, John William Harper was mobilised, his enlistment being confirmed by the Approving Officer at Great Yarmouth on the 17th May. Allocated the serial number 80487 and posted to Number 12 Company, Number 4 Depot, Royal Garrison Artillery, it was at Yarmouth that he conducted his basic training as a Gunner. Upon promotion to this rank, Gunner John William Harper, 80487, was then posted to the ranks of the 142nd Seige Battery R.G.A. on the 10th June 1916, this Battery having been formed at Tynemouth on the 22nd May. This battery were equipped with 4 x 6 inch Howitzers, each gun with a maximum firing range of about 9,500 yards and manned by a crew of ten men.

Progressing through the ranks and promoted to the rank of Acting Bombardier on the 1st August 1916, John, along with his unit departed for the Western Front on the 9th August 1916 sailing from Southampton to Le Havre. With the Somme offensive raging for over one month, John and the men of the 142nd Seige Battery were about to enter the theatre of war at a period of reorganisation of the structure of the artillery and how it fundamentally operated.

Somme

Prior to the launch of the Somme offensive in July 1916, a major reorganisation of heavy artillery and how it actually operated had taken place. The ability of these 'heavies' to influence any offensive action had proved to be difficult in previous battles due to command structure. As a consequence, Heavy Artillery Groups (H.A.G.'s) were formed under the specific control of Armies, each group allocated by these Armies to Corps level. Each group consisting of various calibres of artillery pieces were allocated specific tasks such as counter-battery work, the bombardment of known strong points and the enemy rear areas interdicting supplies and men to the front line. As the 142nd Siege Battery arrived on the Somme, the unit began a complex series of movements to different Corps of the British Army.

Due to the absence of a surviving War Diary, tracing the movement of personnel and guns would have proved to have been an impossible task if it had not been for the valued assistance and expertise of members of the Great War Forum. The Author would like to express his appreciation to the "Pals" for the following information.

The first of these movements commenced on the 15th August when the battery were posted to Thirteenth Corps, under the command of Lieutenant-General Walter Norris Congreve attached to British Fourth Army. Thirteenth Corps had been heavily engaged in the battle for Longueval and Delville Wood and were consequently withdrawn at night on the following day. Replaced by Fourteenth Corps under the command of Lieutenant-General Earl of Cavan, the 142nd were now attached to this Corps with the men and their artillery pieces during both transfers effectively acting as a "Pool Unit" to be distributed to other units within their respective allocated Corps. Further movements were conducted in mid September whereupon the battery were reconstituted and allocated to the 57th Heavy Artillery Group, Fourteenth Corps, Fourth Army. Finally, as the Somme offensive ground to a halt in November 1916, the battery was allocated to the 77th Heavy Artillery group, Thirteenth Corps, Fourth Army.

An analysis of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Database indicates that 1 officer, 1 Bombardier and 7 Gunners were killed or died of wounds between the 27th August - 29th November 1916. The first man to fall in action was Second-Lieutenant Charles Francis Cockfield, a native of Sowerby near Thirsk, North Yorkshire on the 27th August near Montauban, Somme. A pre-war soldier with the Royal Garrison Artillery, Charles, Company Serjeant-Major 31881 was commissioned in June 1915. A married man residing at Horsham, Sussex, the exact circumstances surrounding Charles's are unknown. Originally buried to the south of Montauban and to the north-east of Germans Wood in Casement Trench Cemetery, Maricourt, his body along with others was later exhumed and moved into Peronne Road Cemetery, Maricourt. On the 30th August as the fight for Delville Wood was coming to its bitter conclusion, Gunner George Bertram Allison, 62371, succumbed to wounds at Fifteenth Corps Main Dressing Station located at Dernancourt to the south-west of Albert and is now buried in Dernancourt Communal Cemetery Extension. Born in 1894 at East Keswick near Wetherby and a Market Gardener employed by his father at Moor Cottages, George was just 23 years old and had celebrated his birthday just prior to leaving for overseas service.  

The year of 1917 would witness the dawn of a new era, concentrated firepower assembled for the first Allied offensive of the year destined to take place around the town of Arras, northern France. The objective, to smash through the formidable defences of the German Hindenburg Line (Siegfriedstellung) and bring about a return to open warfare. As the French would launch a major offensive further to the south, the Nivelle Offensive, it was perceived that the attack at Arras would divert German forces from the area of the French offensive near Reims. Ultimately it was envisaged that both the British and French Armies would, once breaking through the German line, join forces and pursue the enemy to their own frontier thus bringing about the total collapse and defeat of the German Armies. 

Arras

In February 1917, the 142nd Seige Battery R.G.A. departed the British Fourth Army and headed north towards Arras. On the 12th February the battery arrived in the Canadian Corps area of operations and were then taken under the control of the Canadian Corps Heavy Artillery, First Army.  With both the Canadian Corps and First Army dividing their heavy artillery into specific groups designated for counter-battery work and siege operations, their work began in earnest. The weather had deteriorated with rain and mist however the batteries of the Heavy Artillery continued counter-battery work and fire support for infantry raids on the enemy's trenches despite poor visibility. In the days that followed, the weather began to improve and on the 17th orders were issued by the G.O.C.R.A. Canadian Corps, Brigadier-General Edward W.B. Morrison, for the first in a series of night bombardments of roads and tramways by 6 inch howitzers, 4.7 inch and 60 pounder guns to interdict the movement of supplies and personnel.

As the month progressed, a wide variety of targets were engaged despite poor visibility due to mist. Yet more seige batteries began to arrive in the Corps area to expand the ever increasing firepower available for the variety of tasks engaged. With the weather improving in the mornings as the month of March dawned, aerial observation greatly enhanced the batteries scope of operations. Counter-battery work, support of raids, trench mortar and machine gun emplacements all being engaged successfully as the full ferocity of the artillery programme continued apace.

In March, the 142nd Seige Battery R.G.A. departed the Canadian Corps. On the 9th, the battery came under the control of the 63rd Heavy Artillery Group and then on the 30th, the 79th H.A.G., both Groups operating in First Corps, First Army. Taking up positions to the south of the village of Aix-Noulette, 79th Heavy Artillery Group adopted a commanding position with well sited fields of fire on high ground around the Bois-de-Noulette. Officer Commanding 142nd Seige Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, Major Frank Montresor Montresor M.C., now set about establishing his battery and men. A pre-war Regular officer, Montresor was the son of Major-General Francis Goring Rideout, late Madras Infantry, and had changed his name by deed poll in January 1916. Commissioned in 1904 and a former cadet of the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, he was an experienced officer who had been awardedthe Military Cross in February 1915 whilst serving with the 3rd Seige Battery, R.G.A.

Extract Of The Official History Of The War
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Concentration Of Heavy & Seige Artillery, Northern Sector Of Canadian Corps

The Plan Of Attack

The objective of the Canadian Corps, First Army in this northern sector was the capture and consolidation of Vimy Ridge, thus, securing the left flank of Third Army under the command of General Allenby during the attack. Dominating the landscape and providing excellent observation over the Douai Plain, the highest point on the Ridge stood at 145 metres above sea level with at its most northern end Hill 120, referred to as "The Pimple." To the north of the 4th Canadian Division, Canadian Corps, the British First Corps under the command of Lieutenant-General Arthur E.A. Holland were to extend the attack northwards north of the Souchez river once the Ridge was captured.

The array of artillery firepower available to First Corps, Canadian Corps and the Third Army was simply staggering. Over 2800 artillery pieces of various calibres ranging from 15 inch to 18-pounders had been assembled that were in turn furnished by an elaborate logistical network supplying the guns with ammunition. Railways, roads, water supply lines and accomodation for men had to be constructed, a large network of existing underground quarries and cellars beneath Arras being utilised and expanded to connect with the trench system to the east of the town.

Of the guns, a comprehensive fire plan had been initiated some three weeks previously. The cutting of the enemy's barbed wire defences was of paramount importance, this task being greatly assisted by the availability of the relatively new Type No. 6 Fuze, a percussion fuze that detonated on contact with an object. Authors note:- As opposed to the Type No. 80 Fuze, a time and percussion fuze used during previous offensives with poor performance.

With regards to the assault of the infantry, a Creeping Barrage was to be employed by the 18 - pounders firing a mixture of high explosive and shrapnel and moving at a rate of 100 yards in four minutes up to the first objective. Whilst this barrage fell, a static bombardment of heavier calibre artillery would also be launched at "Zero" hour on the enemy's support systems. When the two barrages connected, the static bombardment would then lift on to the second objective whilst the Creeping Barrage continued to move forward. In addition, other targets would be engaged in depth, counter-battery work progressing as per programme. As the second objective was reached by the infantry, designated 18 - pounder units would also advance forward in conjunction with the infantry, artillery in turn being brought forward from the rear into the positions vacated by the latter units.

The enemy response to the obvious build up of men and materiel was one of indifference. Even though his trench system was being raided frequently and under severe bombardment, his offensive actions were limited to say the least. As soon as he did fire any artillery piece or trench mortar, the position was either neutralised immediately or ranged in by aeroplane, kite balloon or sound or flash spotted. Now in position about Aix-Noulette, 142nd Seige Battery readied themselves for battle. Authors note:- Only some batteries were "disclosed" prior to the commencement of the offensive so as to maintain secrecy of numbers of artillery pieces in the field and to hide their location from enemy observation.

Copyright IWM (Q 7270)
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12 inch howitzer of the R.G.A. and shells under camouflage netting. Near Arras, April 1917.

Final Preparations
 
Even though the position above Aix-Noulette offered excellent observation, it was also not immune from bombardment by enemy artillery. For one battery of the 282nd Army Field Artillery Brigade, formerly attached to the 56th Division, disaster was to strike one day before the commencement of the Arras offensive. Possibly as the result of a sporadic enemy artillery strafe, 7 men of "A" Battery, an 18 - pounder battery were hit and killed. Amongst the dead numbered, Driver George Arthur Shears, 72437, aged 22 years, Divisional Ammunition Column, his parents residing in Madras, India, and Bombardier William Burns, 77373, a native of Ferryhill, County Durham, aged 24. All seven men now lie in Bois-de-Noulette British Cemetery close to where they fell, the burials in the cemetery itself representing a wide variety of units who occupied this sector from 1916 onwards.
 
9th April 1917: The Battle Of Arras
 
The Battle of Arras requires a specific study in its own right therefore in the course of this commemoration the Author will place the emphasis on the actions of First Corps in the northern sector around Givenchy and the Bois en Hache and to the artillery support given to the left flank of the Canadian attack.
 
At 5.30 a.m. on the morning of the 9th April 1917, the intense barrage that signalled the commencement of the Arras offensive sprang into life hurling shell after shell into the enemy's trench systems. As the infantry advanced into a snow storm, the artillery continued to follow their fireplans as intelligence as to the progress of the advance began to be reported in and collated. Specifically regarding the northern sector in relation to the activities of the 142nd Seige Battery, the advance of the Canadian 4th Division to their right had stalled due to intense machine gun fire from the direction of Hill 120, the "Pimple." Further to the north around mid morning, it was reported that First Corps Heavy Artillery were co-operating in a shoot on Givenchy with 3 howitzer batteries and 60 pounders. Shortly afterwards a request to First Corps was received from the G.O.C.R.A. Canadian Corps for a barrage to be put down to the north and south of the village of Vimy as about three hundred of the enemy were observed in open order to the east. Even targets further afield could not escape the attentions of the artillery as train movements were observed to the east in the town of Avion whereupon the target(s) were engaged by First Corps who put down  6 inch MK VII fire. Still the firing continued.
24th Divisional artillery reported at about 1.35 p.m. that large numbers of enemy troops were observed to the north of Givenchy, this being dealt with by the fire of 18 pounders and Heavies. Still though, some enemy artillery batteries put down fire. The War Diary G.O.C. Royal Artillery Canadian Corps recording:-
 
"5.9 " barrage west of THELUS but not heavy. 2.22 p.m. Enemy withdrawing his guns from T.26.a.6.2. and 5.4. (Authors note:- South of Vimy Railway Station). The Country is alive with teams, there is also a battery in action at T.14.c.0.8." (South of the Bois de la Chaudiere).
 
With 4th Canadian Division's attack stalled, First Corps put down another bombardment assisted by the Canadian Corps at 4.30 p.m. Still enemy artillery batteries were active and at some point during the day, 142nd Seige Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery was hit by a shell or salvoe of shells.
 
The Death Of Corporal John William Harper, 80487
 
Possibly at some point during the late afternoon of the 9th April, Corporal John William Harper set about attending to his men's welfare. A newspaper article dated the 21st April 1917 forms the basis of a letter sent to John's parents by his Battery Commander Major Frank Montressor Montressor M.C. :- 
 
"The Major of the deceased's battery, in a letter, stated that a shell fell outside the cook-house while Corporal Harper was ascertaining if his men's tea was ready, and death must have been instantaneous. The letter added that Corporal Harper was universally popular , as much for his general characteristics as for his efficiency as a soldier, and that he had been recommended for a commission."
 
Four further men of the battery were either killed or died of wounds, possibly as the result of the explosion of the shell.
Gunner James Albert Austin, 90954, a married man of Flore, Northamptonshire, aged 31. Buried in an adjoining grave to John.
Gunner Herbert Hosking, 95371, a native of Pensilva, near Liskeard, Cornwall, died of wounds aged 36.
Gunner Joshua Reginald Reynolds, 66906, born at Ipswich but resident of Hampstead, London. Had passed instruction in signals and telephony. Died of wounds on the 10th April aged about 20 years.
Gunner Clifford William Hughes Wright, 78947, a married man and a resident of Kilburn, London, killed aged 24 years. All these men now lie in Aix-Noulette Communal Cemetery Extension, Pas-de-Calais, France.
 
Aix-Noulette Cemetery Extension
 
Originally begun by French troops in early 1915, the cemetery was taken over by the British 1st and 2nd Divisions in late February 1916 and was used for burials by units and Field Ambulances until October 1918. The number of burials was increased in the cemetery after the Armistice by the concentration of the dead from battlefields to the east. Aix-Noulette Cemetery Extension now contains 749 Commonwealth burials of the 1914-18 war, 61 of their number being unidentified. French burials number 502 in two plots next to the Communal Cemetery. 
 
 

By Kind Permission. Copyright IWM (Q 78604)
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War cemetery at Aix-Noulette, 27th October 1917.
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A Simple Epitaph Reads, "In His Keeping."