Wilfred Harrison, a Private in the 8th Battalion (90th Winnipeg Rifles) CEF died at the Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley 100 years ago today. Wilfred was my first cousin (3x removed), the son of my great-great Aunt and Uncle Sydney Anne (MacCarthy) and John James Harrison.
Wilfred was born in Ottawa in 1883 and was a highly regarded hockey player and tenor soloist. At age 15 he joined the Ottawa Public School Cadet Corps and became Captain of the Kent Street School No. 1 Coy. He also served in the 43rd Regiment, Duke of Cornwall’s Own Rifles
Wilfred worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway and then the Ottawa Electric Company before a job opportunity in Winnipeg led him west. It was here that he enlisted with the Fort Garry Horse when war broke out in August 1914. At Valcartier the Fort Garry Horse was combined with other cavalry units and converted to the 6th Battalion CEF. They proceeded to England on the S.S. Lapland and disembarked on October 14th.
The 6th Battalion was disbanded in January and the men transferred into cavalry or infantry units. By mid-February Wilfred found himself in France with the 8th Battalion (90th Winnipeg Rifles).
On April 22, 1915 the Second Battle of Ypres began when a German gas attack ripped open the allied front line, forcing the 13th and 15th Battalions on the right to extend their lines back in order to protect their rear. This left the 8th Battalion in a precarious position as the book, “The Winnipeg Rifles Fiftieth Anniversary: 1883 – 1933” describes:
“The 8th Battalion was left at the spearhead of a dangerous salient, and for four days the Little Black Devils endured a rain of shells from the front, flank and rear.”
The Battalion War Diary stated that on April 22nd 3 men were killed and 3 officers & 33 men were wounded. Wilfred was shot in the arm and on the following day he passed through the 3rd Field Ambulance and the 3rd Casualty Clearing Station and at some point received a routine anti-tetanus injection. He was moved to the 11th General Hospital before evacuation to Southampton where he was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Netley.
Tetanus is a bacterial infection commonly found in soil and a wounded soldier would be particularly susceptible to infection. The symptoms include violent muscle spasms which can sometimes lead to bone fractures or muscle tears. On April 28th Dr Oshima reported that Wilfred began showing signs of tetanus including a stiff neck, severe tensing of the abdominal muscle and opisthotonos (arching of the back). Despite their best efforts his condition only worsened and at 5am on April 30th 1915 Wilfred Harrison passed away.
Initially I assumed that Wilfred’s infection was the result of his wound but my research turned up an interesting article entitled “Prevention of tetanus during the First World War“. Written in 2012 by P.C. Wever and L. van Bergen it states:
“Because of fatal serum anaphylaxis associated with administration of serum at a time when purification methods still needed to be improved, it must be presumed that tens to hundreds of men might have died as a result of the routine administration of anti-tetanus serum during WWI.”
Could Wilfred’s tetanus infection have been the result of the serum and not a contaminated wound? I bounced this idea off Sue Light, one of the leading experts on Great War nursing and owner of Scarletfinders, The Fairest Force and This Intrepid Band. While she admitted we will never know for sure she did provide information on a nurse from the Highland Casualty Clearing Station who appears to have died from an anti-tetanus injection in 1916. Perhaps then Wilfred was one of the “tens to hundreds of men” (and women) who died from early batches of the serum.
Wilfred’s cause of death was not the only point of debate. Both the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Canadian Virtual War Memorial indicate his date of death as April 28th but this is not correct. The doctor’s notes, his burial record and three documents in his service file indicate he died on April 30th. A handful of other service file documents state the 28th or 29th and so this is likely why the CWGC and CVWM records are wrong. Fortunately the inscription on Wilfred’s impressive stone cross at the Netley Military Cemetery is correct and I will be on the look out for it when I pay my respects in person in 2016.
A special thank you to Julie Green from The Royal Victoria Hospital & Military Cemetery Netley website and Sue Light for their assistance.