An Anzac I Never Knew

The 14th Brigade of the 5th Australian Division formed the centre of the attack, in the Battle of Fromelles on 19 July. The Australian units were (from left flank to right):
8th Brigade: 32nd (WA) and 31st (Qld, Vic) assaulting with 29th (Vic) and 30th (NSW) in reserve.
14th Brigade (NSW): 53rd and 54th assaulting with 55th and 56th in reserve.
15th Brigade (Vic): 59th and 60th assaulting with 57th and 58th in reserve.

The 54th Battalion was raised in Egypt as part of the ‘doubling’ of the AIF after the Australian troops had returned to Egypt following the Gallipoli campaign. Half of the men were 2nd Battalion Gallipoli veterans and the other half newly arrived reinforcements from Australia. The 54th Battalion consisted mainly of men from New South Wales.

The early part of the battalion’s history is described on the Australian War Memorial website as: Moving to France in June 1916, the 54th fought its first major battle on the Western Front at Fromelles, on 19 July. It was a disaster. The 54th was part of the initial assault and suffered casualties equivalent to 65 per cent of its fighting strength. Casualty rates among the rest of the 5th Division were similarly high, but despite these losses it continued to man the front in the Fromelles sector for a further two months.

Photo: Fallen soldiers at Fromelles July 1916

The Australian casualties from the Battle of Fromelles were 5,533 men. The 54th Battalion accounted for 540 of those casualties with 155 soldiers paying the supreme sacrifice; including the 30 listed amongst the ‘missing’ at Pheasant Wood Fromelles.

Photo: Pheasant Wood shrouded in mist during May 2008 archaeological dig.

Major Roy Harrison, an original ANZAC, led the first wave of the 54th Battalion over the top at precisely 5:50pm – he was to be dead within 2 hours of the commencement of the battle.

Families and Friends of the First AIF member Neville Kidd first introduced many of us to Major Roy Harrison in his article An Anzac I Never Knew which appeared the DIGGER Magazine in August 2003. Neville’s book An Impression Which Will Never Fade charts the course of Harrison’s enlistment in the AIF and his service with the 2nd and 54th Battalions.

Photo: Roy Harrison

Neville’s article in DIGGER Issue 3 begins by setting the scene:

Members of FFFAIF Inc are encouraged to nominate the servicemen and women of the Great War 1914-1918 whose memory they specially revere as relatives or friends. In my case I listed my father, 3 uncles, 2 friends and last but by no means least, an Anzac I never knew. It is of course not necessary to know or name any particular Veteran to be able to join, assist in perpetuating the memory of those who offered their young lives for us so long ago, and support the objectives of FFFAIF.
My ‘unknown’ Anzac was Roy Harrison, born Yass NSW 1889, educated Goulburn District School, Government Savings Bank clerk 1908-1914, served Citizens’ Military Forces with The NSW Scottish Rifle Regiment 1908-1913 and 21st Woollahra Infantry Regiment 1913-1914 rising to the rank of Lieutenant. He enlisted in the AIF on 17th August 1914 and dropped rank to Second Lieutenant to join 2nd Australian Infantry Battalion when it was raised.

Second Lieutenant Harrison embarked at Sydney aboard HMAT Suffolk to join the First Convoy of the AIF departing Albany WA bound for overseas service.

After training at Mena Camp, Egypt, he saw service in the Canal Zone. By 9th April 1915 he had been promoted to Lieutenant and was at Lemnos preparing for the Gallipoli Campaign.
On 25th April 1915, he landed at Gallipoli and was the only officer of the 2nd Bn to stay for the whole of that battalion’s campaign on Gallipoli. From 9th May 1915 to 9th December 1915 he was Adjutant of the 2nd Bn, and the unit War Diary for that period is in his handwriting.  Harrison gets an honourable mention by name in actions on Gallipoli and in France in Bean’s Official History of the AIF in the Great War.
Following the Evacuation from Gallipoli on 20th December 1915, he reached Egypt on 27th December and shortly afterwards was promoted from Captain to Major.
When, in February 1916, the 1st Australian Division was split in half to provide a nucleus of seasoned troops for the 5th Australian Division then being raised, Roy was transferred as Senior Major to the 54th Bn of the 14th Bde.  On 20th June 1916 on ‘HMT Caledonia’ the Bn sailed for France from Alexandria via Malta and entrained at Marseilles for Northern France and the Western Front.
On the night of 19/20th July the 5th Australian Division and the 61st British Division assaulted German positions at Fromelles. This was the first action by an Australian division as a division on the Western Front and is probably the least known of all the major battles fought by the 1st AIF.  Major Harrison led the first attacking wave of the 54th Bn and although initially reported missing and wounded, he was later found to have been killed in action. He was one of 5,533 Australian casualties that night, almost all fell within 15 HOURS. …….

Roy wrote regularly to his fiancée Emily Ellis (1890-1977) and she transcribed all matters touching upon his service at the war. These transcriptions were given to me by the Ellis family in 1987 and I became aware of this remarkable young soldier. The letters and the Battalion War Diary, which he wrote, constitute a unique record of the distinguished service of an Original Anzac. …….

LETTER – France – 15.7.1916. [Roy’s last to Emily] … we are going in to capture a German position. By the time this reaches you, the result will be known to you through the paper, so, failing any bad news, you may take it that all is well… It is no use worrying as I am quite satisfied that what is to be, will be, and nothing can alter it for good or evil… The men don’t know yet what is before them, but some suspect that there is something in the wind. It is a most pitiful thing to see them all, going about, happy and ignorant of the fact, that a matter of hours will see many of them dead; but as the French say ‘C’est la guerre’.

Roy had never written to Emily like that before, despite his engagement in many desperately dangerous actions on Gallipoli. 

Major Harrison’s was reported as ‘Missing in action’ on 19th/20th July during the Battle of Fromelles, and after a Court of Enquiry was held in December 1916, was recorded as ‘Killed in Action’ on 20th July 1916. Major Harrison’s body was not recovered from the battlefield until 1921 when the remains of an Officer were exhumed by the Imperial War Graves Commission from a field in France. Still within the pocket of the Officer’s uniform was a silver cigarette case bearing the inscription:

To Lieut. Harrison
Jeff & Sum

Major Harrison was re-buried at Rue Petillon Military Cemetery near Fleurbaix .  Sixty nine years later Neville Kidd had the opportunity to visit the final resting place of Roy.

Insert photo : Major Harrison’s grave

In 1990, my wife Win and I were accompanied on a six day tour of the Western Front battlefields by our guide, philosopher and friend, John Laffin and his wife Hazelle. I recorded our visit to Roy’s grave in these words:  “Prior to entering Rue Petillon Cemetery, I had undergone at earlier war cemeteries we had visited, singularly unusual impressions and stirrings of emotions, but here as I approached the resting place of my hero, I experienced vibrations and feelings of considerable intensity. I do not know how long I half knelt before his headstone, and later after visiting *Maxted’s grave, how long I knelt at the base of the War Stone and stared in silent prayer at the Great Cross of Sacrifice. I actually dissolved and lost all physical notion of space and time.  At rare times in my life I have had a much milder version of this type of sensation, but nothing so intense and, as I gathered from John Laffin later, nothing so sustained. As we were leaving Rue Petillon Cemetery I apologised to him for having tarried and he said, “I know exactly where you have been – there is no need for any apology.  The AIF on the Western Front have this effect on many of us.”  He meant it, and I knew I was in good company, living and dead.”
[* Chaplain, the Rev Spencer Edward Maxted, attached to 54th Inf Bn, KIA 19th July 1916 at Fromelles – Roy Harrison’s Padre and friend – also buried at Rue Petillon Cemetery.] 

Somehow I hope that I have here conveyed to the readers of ‘Digger’ some idea of what the Anzacs mean to me and of the debt that we all owe to that extraordinary generation of Australians born in the last quarter of the 19th Century who uncomplainingly gave their youth and their young lives so that we may enjoy the freedoms and the way of life we take for granted and as our right. I am so grateful that the benefit of their sacrifice has endured and that the Anzac Tradition has since been maintained in WW2, Malaya, Korea, Vietnam, The Gulf, East Timor, Iraq and nameless other places where our Defence Forces have been involved. Our children, grandchildren and their heirs will continue to owe this debt.

I am grateful too, to all of you special people who have held high the torch thrown by John Laffin as he departed into the Eternal Light, by making his dream of FFFAIF a reality and for establishing the Memorial Fund which bears his name and will keep his name and his aspirations for Digger Heritage alive in the hearts and minds of young Australians; for they are ‘the hope of the side’.

Lest we forget!


Insert photo: Neville, John Laffin & Martial 

Neville Kidd has been a long time campaigner for the recognition of The Battle of Fromelles and has continued to remind us that: 

‘Sadly and shamefully the sacrifice at FROMELLES is not honoured on The Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park, Sydney. Lest we forget!’

Meticulous ‘detective’ work by the Imperial War Graves Commission led to Major Harrison’s remains being identified – after he had been unceremoniously buried during the Battle of Fromelles. Major Harrison’s family was notified of the finding of his body and subsequent re-burial at Rue Petillon Cemetery. Major Harrison’s service record, available on line at the National Archives of Australia shows that his family received a copy of the booklet Where Australians Rest in 1921 and nine years later, in 1930, a copy of the Cemetery Register for Rue Petillon.

Photo: Rue Petillon Cemetery

One hundred and seventy three of Major Harrison’s fellow members of the AIF, who paid the supreme sacrifice 92 years ago at the Battle of Fromelles, and whose bodies have now been found deserve similar treatment. These men should also be given an individual final resting place and every effort should be made to identify them.  These Diggers are known – we have their names, many of their descendants have come forward – a dignified re-burial with an individual headstone is an appropriate recognition of their supreme sacrifice.

FFFAIF Policy Statement

The Families and Friends of the First AIF believes that the Australian Government through the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs should commit the to re-burial of the “missing of Fromelles” with individual graves and headstones in a new Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Pheasant Wood after DNA testing.



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