One hundred years ago today, at this time, the guns fell silent. The great war was over.
We pause now to remember those that fell, that never came back, those that were scarred for life, families affected… the massive sacrifice. It was a bludgeoning war, a stalemate of forces stacked up against each other, smashing away for 4 years at terrible cost.
But within it, were personal stories. Here’s one…
At 9.35am on 1st December 1917, the Indian 2nd Lancers (Gardner’s Horse) Cavalry were ordered to charge on horseback up a valley with the intention of capturing the town of Villers Guislain.
This was northern France, during the wider Battle of Cambrai, that had been raging for months. The battle was the first time tanks had been used in war. They were moderately successful, many broke down, so commanders still liked the fast paced nature of a horse back attack. After years of bloody stalemate, you had to do something different to break through.
My grandfather, who I am named after, Charles Harris, was on horseback that day charging up that hill. I remember him telling me how some of his regiment fell off their horses during the battle, and he wondered why this was happening as the ground (mainly cabbage patches) was not too hard going. They were being shot off their horses of course. Something that did not occur to him in the adrenaline of the moment.
As bullets whizzed overhead, the Lancers made it to the top of the hill and jumped over the trenches. Most of the fighters had fled, and some returned to their positions as the mounted cavalrymen overshot their positions, were halted and then jumped back over the trenches and retook them a second time. 3 officers and 42 ranking servicemen were killed. My granddad (‘Pop’ as we called him later) survived.
Now becoming surrounded, two volunteers rode back on horseback to get word on what to do next. One was killed, the other – Lance-Daffadar Gobind Singh – had three horses shot from under him, an action that would result in the awarding of the Victoria Cross.
The upshot of this skirmish was that the 2nd Lancers were told to retreat to their former position. They had gone too far too fast, and could not be supported. Pop and his crew had to fight their way back to their own lines.
Earlier this year, together with my two older brothers, and our families (which included three great grand children of Pop Harris) found the location of that brave cavalry charge, just over 100 years ago. I had last visited with my own parents in 1980, and when I saw the crucifix in the road, I remembered being there 38 years earlier, and how Pop had told us the cavalry turned left at this point then up the hill.
This week, the Daily Telegraph in England, in homage to those that fought in the Great War, reprinted a series of articles and stories from the time. They chose to reprint Pop’s obituary that they had ran in 1996, when he passed away 6 days before what would have been his 100th birthday. (‘ Lest we forget: Brigadier Harris, the Battle of Cambrai veteran who charged the Germans on horseback – obituary.’)
I remember listening in awe to Pop’s stories over the years. He remembered that charge as if it had been last month, yet he was telling me the story over 60 years later.
Of course, if he’d not lived to tell the tale, he would not have had my Mum 12 years later, and neither me, my brothers, or our children would have existed.
What bravery. What a generation.
And so today, at this hour, I pay tribute to The Rev Brigadier General Charles E ‘Pop’ Harris, and all those that fought with him on that day and in that war, on all sides. May we never endure such a terrible event again. May we never forget the sacrifice of that generation, and those since.